Heidi Hopper held onto the canoe beside hers to brace it while her paddling partner, Amanda Losee, dragged a rusty hunk of metal toward the canoe. It was curved, almost as long as Losee, and probably came from the hood of an old car or maybe a tractor. Other volunteers discussed what else was on the river banks, what the group could reasonably take, and offered suggestions for how to balance all of it in the canoes.
The hood wasn’t the only large piece of metal to come from the bank of the West Fork of the Des Moines River. Volunteers had stumbled across an old farm dump site, or so they guessed, and up and down the river people were finding tires, vehicle parts, sheets of metal and, twice, refrigerators on the banks.
And this was just the beginning of the day on the nine-and-a-half mile stretch of the river.
While it’s easy to feel discouraged by Iowa’s water quality woes, hundreds of volunteers like these are working every year to make a difference, one waterway at a time.
The 19th annual Iowa Project AWARE came to a close on Friday, and its popularity has skyrocketed since it first began in 2003.
Every year, volunteers sign up for a six-day trip on a section of river and they remove trash—from bottles and tires to old barbed-wire fences and refrigerators—from the water and the riverbank. The trash is recylced if it can be, or disposed of some other way.
The project was initially part of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), but it has since become an indendent nonprofit. About 50 smaller cleanup events have been inpired by the project and 888 thousand pounds of trash have been removed from Iowa rivers.
This year, 10.73 tons of scrap metal was removed and recycled, 2.1 tons of trash was landfilled, and an estimated 300 tires came out of the river. An unusual number of the tires were still attached to the rims, so those need to be cut off before they can be weighed and recycled.
When registration opened up for the 2022 Project AWARE, founder and board member Lynette Seigley said slots quickly filled up—150 in the first day. This year, 348 total volunteers were with the group at some point in the Sunday-Friday event to clean up the West Fork of the Des Moines River in Northern Iowa.
“We’re always amazed that, you know, 19 years after we started it, that it’s still going and that there’s this much interest in support for it,” Seigley said. “We’re very appreciative that we’ve been able to keep it going.”
Some come for one or two days, and some come for the whole week, but, on average, 200 people are on the water at a time, partly because of safety and partly because that’s how many canoes they have available from sources such as the Iowa DNR and Iowa State University.
Seigley called the week a revolving door, made up half-and-half of newcomers and those who have participated for years. This year, 56% had done it before and 44% were new to the project.
“We had more interest this year than any year before,” she said. “We actually had to get an extra rack of canoes just to meet the need that we had.”
The types of volunteers vary, too. Some treat Project AWARE as the family vacation, some bring groups of friends. Members of the Grace United Methodist Church Group from Des Moines—about 30—joined AWARE from Sunday to Wednesday, and about 30 employees from the Poet ethanol facility joined Thursday, from different cities in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota.
Everyone is there to help make Iowa water a little better, though.
This year, the project covered 61 miles of river, which is the typical goal Seigley said, and it was their first time on this river or in Emmet and Palo Alto counties. She said they were great partners, allowing the group to camp and use their facilities in Wolden County Park in Emmet County and Harrison Park in Emmetsburg.
The city also let them use the showers at the high school and the parking lot at the elementary school.
The Emmet County Community Foundation, Emmet County Conservation & Nature Center and the City of Emmetsburg were some of this year’s sponsors.
“Emmet County Conservation, the facility, the park there—Wolden—was perfect for our group and they could not have been more accommodating in the same way with the city of Emmetsburg allowing us to stay here for two nights,” she said.
Nina Marquadt, the 22-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer who was a program manager for Project AWARE this year, said people would be surprised how much planning goes into preparing all the moving parts for Project AWARE. From transportation, food, and camping sites, to amenities such as showers and access points for getting on and off the water. There are also the trucks for carting away the trash they pull out for recycling.
“This year buses were really hard to get because schools didn’t rent them out anymore in Iowa and there was a driver shortage,” she said. “So our buses are from Minnesota.”
Marquadt was hired in January and already a lot of the work had been done in scouting the river and coming up with back-up plans if floods or bad weather or something else made the West Fork of the Des Moines River not work.
Marquadt, a lifelong Iowan who plans to become an environmental lawyer with a focus on water law, learned about Project AWARE from her mentor, who is an AWARE volunteer, and it fit perfectly within her interests.
And Marquadt said she’s happy to have been involved because it’s hard not to feel hopeless about the environment, especially when the state government doesn’t do much to protect water quality.
“It comes down to the citizens,” she said. “Someone has to do it, and stuff like this is the only way it’s going to happen. And to see so many people so excited to do it— like our registration filled up so fast people were eager to do it, which is very inspiring and it makes me feel better.”
Marquadt hadn’t heard about Project AWARE before this, but now she said she’d love to come back as a volunteer.
“I want to tell a lot of my friends about it because it’s also fun,” Marquadt said. “You get to camp for a week, you’ve got meals … It’s super fun and you feel so good at the end of the day with what you’re doing. And it’s a good thing to feel like you’re doing something for your community.”
“People do care,” she continued. “People do want to come out, they want to get dirty and help improve their state. And that’s what you want to see more of.”
Update (July 19, 2022, 9:12 a.m.): The story was updated with numbers from this year’s Project AWARE.
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