Proposed Santa Clara County ordinance by Valley Water would make living alongside waterways illegal

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) —Valley Water and the City of San Jose have a problem: trash and pollutants from encampments along their waterways.

And now Santa Clara County’s water district is proposing a new ordinance that would make living near creeks and rivers illegal.

For many, like Ruben Salas who lives in an encampment along the Guadalupe River in San Jose, being unhoused is not a choice.

Unmanaged and unclean conditions are not ideal, but it’s the only option he has.

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“I don’t got a choice,” Salas said. “I make the best of what I got. I try not to complain. I try not to cry about it. It might be bad, but it’s all I’ve got. What am I going to do?”

Soon, he knows living here may not even be a possibility.

Since July, Valley Water has spent nearly $3 million cleaning up 1,300 tons of trash along 295 miles of rivers and creeks in Santa Clara County.

To stop people from living along the waterways, Valley Water is proposing an ordinance that would subject violators to $500 fines or up to 30 days of jail time.

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“It’s Valley Water’s role as an environmental stewardship agency to ensure that the waterways are clean and the flood protection measures that we enact work as they’re designed to,” Valley Water Watershed Operations & Maintenance Asst. Officer of Good Neighbor Program Mark Bilski said.

The City of San Jose and Mayor Matt Mahan have been trying to find their own solutions to clean up creeks and rivers as well.

The city is facing pressure to clean up pollutants or face state fines and a loss of water permits.

But he doesn’t want the 700 people who live along Valley Water’s owned waterways to be moved out to neighborhoods with no plan.

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“We need to work with them to identify sites so that we can stand up alternative shelter, basic services, sanitation, case management, security and create a dignified and safe alternative to encampments,” Mahan said.

Unhoused advocate Sandy Perry sees the value in clean water.

But he says the only reason people are alongside the creeks is because the city and county are not offering the unhoused enough places to go.

“So this whole idea of having people go back and forth from the creeks to the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods to the creeks endlessly is not a solution,” Perry said.

Valley Water’s Environmental Creek Cleanup Committee will discuss the issue Friday before a final board vote in June.

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