Meet The Volunteers Cleaning Iowa’s Rivers, One Plastic Bottle At A Time

Photo by Mike McGinn

Thousands of miles of water run through Iowa, and every year an outpouring of hundreds of volunteers fan out to take care of them.

One of those efforts is Iowa Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition), an annual volunteer effort to remove trash from a section of river.

Volunteers of all ages board canoes and spend a day or two, or the whole week, picking up everything from plastic bottles to whole tires and bicycles.

This year’s 49-mile route takes place along the North, Middle and South Raccoon rivers near Dallas and Green counties from July 11-16.

The 340 volunteers for this year’s cleanup range in age from 3 to 79 and come from various backgrounds, including farmers, business owners, government employees, and students, according to Project AWARE board member Lynette Seigley.

Seigley became involved in river cleanups when she worked for the Iowa Water Program, under the purview of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“It was a volunteer water monitoring program, and at the time we were looking for another way to engage citizens in water resources in Iowa,” she said. “We wanted something more.”

Photo by John Pearson

So Iowa Project AWARE was born in 2003. Initially a part of the DNR, it has become a a nonprofit, independent of the agency.

Since then, 888 thousand pounds of trash have been removed from Iowa’s interior rivers with the help of more than 1,200 volunteers. An additional 50 cleanup events were inspired by the project.

“It increases awareness and an understanding of what the issues are,” Seigley said. “Volunteers who participate on AWARE, they certainly have a changed outlook.”

Enough so that a few regular members started their own cleanups back home, such as the Lower Wapsipinicon River Cleanup started by Melisa Jacobsen and the Iowa River Cleanup organized by Dan Ceynar. Both have participated in Project AWARE for more than a decade.

The project is based on the model provided by Chad Pregracke, who established Living Lands & Waters, a nonprofit environmental organization that hosts cleanups on rivers across the country.

The East Moline, Illinois-based organization began in 1997 and started with the Mississippi River. Since then, it has removed more than 11 million pounds of trash from rivers across the country with the help of more than 117,000 volunteers.

Seigley said some Iowa volunteers come out on the river every year. This year was the first time they had to close the registration because the amount of interest outnumbered the canoes they had available.

“We’ve had people ask, ‘well can’t you schedule more than one,’ but it really does take a year of planning to get just one event in place,” Seigley said. “Because we didn’t have the event last year and we’re coming out of COVID, people are really looking for opportunities to get outdoors.”

Photo by John Pearson

Every day, she said, an average of 200 volunteers paddle between eight to 14 miles with a rest break in the middle. Along the way, they pull trash out of the water. Then they stop to sort the trash, recycle what they can, and make camp.

The trash varies from plastic bags and bottles to scrap metal like bicycles, car parts, and, one year, an old manure spreader.

Seigley said the biggest quantity of trash they pull out tends to be scrap metal, and the garbage gets there from floods, winds and old waste sites on people’s property.

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Fortunately, Project AWARE has partnerships to take care of those materials they collect. Bridgestone Tire Co. handles tires, the city of Ames takes dirty plastic and burnable trash and Cedar Rapids/Linn County recycles the glass they find.

“For so many people, it’s like a family reunion every year,” Seigley said. “It’s a chance for people to get together once a year and work together on a project.”

Photo by John Pearson

They also bond at campgrounds over food, educational programs and crafts.

Linda Appelgate, a retired resource conservationist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), has participated in Project AWARE for 15 years, largely because of the people and the atmosphere.

“You’re with this whole group of other people, of other river rats from all walks of life doing all kinds of things,” she said. “Young, little kids, old people, middle-aged people that just love rivers and want to make them better.”

Appelgate has met people from all over the state, and even from around the country, who come back to take part in the project year after year and bring family and friends with them.

“It’s very much a big family that you welcome new people to all the time,” she said.

Seigley said Project AWARE wouldn’t be possible without the people and local communities giving advice for how to draw the routes and where to set up at the end of the day. No one leaves unaffected, she noted.

“If you’re paddling for a week, you really get to experience the river and how it changes,” Seigley said. “You get to see the communities that the river passes through and get more of an appreciation for what that watershed river and community is, what they have to offer.”


by Nikoel Hytrek

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3 Comments on "Meet The Volunteers Cleaning Iowa’s Rivers, One Plastic Bottle At A Time"

  • Linda Appelgate is far more than a retired conservation staffer. She has been working for Iowa’s natural resources in various capacities, paid and unpaid, for decades. It’s very good to know she’s still doing good work out on the river as a volunteer, and it’s not surprising. Iowa is lucky to have her.

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