After another long Wisconsin winter, who doesn’t yearn to head outdoors to enjoy warmer temperatures, longer days and the emergence of buds and blossoms? Walking along Milwaukee’s rivers, rushing with snowmelt, can be particularly invigorating. And as the snow cover gradually recedes, it begins to reveal … tons of trash!
A sad and inevitable truth about urban living is that the detritus of the city accumulates, especially over the winter, making a mess of many of the places we love the best, including our rivers.
Enter Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the advocacy organization that works to improve waterways throughout our area. For more than 25 years, Milwaukee Riverkeeper has organized thousands of volunteers to help with its annual Spring River Cleanup, timed to coincide with Earth Day.
“Our rivers are such an important part of Milwaukee,” says Jennifer Bolger Breceda, the group’s executive director. “Our annual cleanup is a way for the community to spend a morning walking along the river, removing trash and pollution, connecting with neighbors and helping to beautify our community.”
In recent years, more than 4,000 volunteers have picked their way through tall grasses and riverside thickets along all three major local waterways – the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. Most are on foot, trying to dislodge recalcitrant debris and sometimes wading into the water to untangle shredded bags from briers and tree branches, while some set out in rowboats, canoes or kayaks to retrieve sunken rubbish, mud-filled tires, shopping carts, even rusting bicycles.
They collect a huge volume and assortment of trash and debris, from cigarette butts to mattresses and construction equipment. The primary culprit, by far, is plastic – particularly bags and bottles. “Of everything we find, more than 85% is made out of plastic or has plastic in it,” says Allie Mendez, Milwaukee Riverkeeper cleanup and events coordinator. It all adds up to a mind-boggling quantity: Well over 100,000 pounds of trash was collected during last spring’s cleanup.
Some of the most intriguing items have found new life decorating the Riverkeeper offices: an antique wagon wheel, a parking meter, an African mask. Cheryl Nenn, whose official title is Riverkeeper, recalls early cleanups that required a crane to lower dumpsters into the river channel to handle the “huge piles of scrap metal, dozens of shopping carts, industrial debris and many, many tires of all sizes.” Two and a half decades of annual cleanups have lowered the rivers’ overall junk level, but many of the same materials are still found in smaller quantities each year. Nenn remembers a group of youngsters working for two hours trying to extract a tire from river mud; she says she’ll never forget “their beaming, joyful faces” once they succeeded.
The cleanup has also become a family affair for many veteran volunteers who see the event’s value to engage kids in community service and environmental stewardship. “Some families have done this cleanup for so many years that we’ve seen their kids grow up and go on to college – to study environmental science,” says Nenn.
The benefits of participating in the annual cleanup transcend the knowledge that you are making the river cleaner, safer and healthier. And a big part of it is discovering the entirely different way to experience our urban surroundings: forest canopy closing in overhead, traffic noise being overtaken by the gurgling of water. “Beyond the primary goal of cleaning the riverways, secondary goals are to connect people with our rivers and inspire a sense of stewardship,” Nenn says. “If people don’t connect to the rivers, then they won’t help us to protect them.”