A couple of decades ago, trash cluttered the banks of the Missouri River.
Tires, alcohol bottles, cigarette butts and plastic interrupted the natural scenery for boaters and proved toxic for wildlife.
But, in recent years, the trash situation has taken a turn for the better. And one mid-Missouri group might have something to do with it.
Missouri River Relief has been advocating for the Missouri River for 16 years. The group hosts talks and educational events, and also organizes clean-ups. Since its inception, the group has hosted more than 160 river clean-ups in eight different states.
Their event coordinator, Jen Davis, said all that hard work is starting to pay off.
“When we started, there was so much trash it was unsightly. You could hardly enjoy the natural beauty of the river,” she said.
But, when volunteers got out on the river ahead of Saturday’s Missouri River clean-up at Franklin Island Conservation Area outside of Boonville, she said they were pleasantly surprised by how little trash they found.
“I think people are more aware of the importance of protecting natural resources like our watersheds and people are taking responsibility for cleaning up trash in their neighborhoods,” Davis said.
She explained that a lot of the trash that ends up in the Missouri, the Mississippi and eventually the ocean starts in neighborhoods. Big rains and floods wash the trash into storm drains and eventually waterways. So cleaning up neighborhoods helps, but some of that trash still makes its way onto river banks. And that’s where Missouri River Relief’s volunteers come into play.
More than 180 volunteers got out on the Missouri River for their October 21st clean-up, and that doesn’t include the volunteers who scoured the Lamine River by canoe. Combined, they picked up 178 bags of trash, and some odds and ends that don’t fit in a bag, like a dishwasher and a red canoe.
When I headed to the Franklin Conservation Area boat ramp to catch the slow trickle of boats coming back from the morning clean-up, what struck me immediately was the diversity of the volunteers.
The volunteers ranged from young teens and college students who are getting out on the river for the first time to a 17-year veteran of the organization named Dave Stevens.
When I asked him why he keeps coming back, he said, “Mostly it's the people. Connecting people to the river is a good time. Any excuse to get on the water is a good excuse.”
He also said that the Missouri River is an important resource for agriculture, transportation and recreation, and it’s where we get our water from.
“One thing that everybody can agree on is tires and refrigerators and plastic bottles don't belong here,” Stevens said. “The plastic will last eons and it ends up in a trash jam up in the northern Pacific Ocean eventually or in some fishes’ belly.”
So, to keep that trash out of those fishes’ bellies, the volunteers headed out on boats and scoured the nearby banks for trash. They also were on the look-out for treasures. A trash contest followed the clean-up, with entries ranging from ceramic dolls to soccer balls to an abundance of turtle shells.
One group of girls giggled while they showed me their treasure. An empty turtle shell combined with a beaver skull.
“We put it together and made a burtle,” 11-year-old Erica Porneluzi said.
Natalie Wiseman, also 11, explained that they all belong to a group called Girls of Nature.
I also find volunteer workers from the nearby Isle of Capri Casino and State Fair Community College, who said their work and school had encouraged them to participate. Several had never been on the river before.
That mix of young and old, of different organizations and companies, is something that Davis said is characteristic of the organization.
“I’m sure everyone has a different story but their connection is central,” Davis said. “It's the Missouri River that ultimately brings people here.”