When Living Lands & Waters conducted its annual spring break cleanup of Memphis’ McKellar Lake along the Mississippi River this year, it managed to remove 141,291 pounds of trash from a three-mile stretch of waterfront, thanks to the assistance of 675 volunteers. Those volunteers spent parts of three weeks in March, many of whom were college students devoting their free time during spring break to instead make a difference along the Memphis waterfront. The effort is a small part of the larger focus of Living Lands & Waters, an East Moline, Illinois-based nonprofit organization that was founded in 1998 and dedicated to serving as the only “industrial strength” river cleanup organization in the world.
Living Lands & Waters staff and volunteers spend up to nine months a year living and traveling by barge up and down the Mississippi River and more than 20 other waterways where it hosts river cleanups, watershed conservation initiatives, workshops, tree plantings and other key conservation efforts. The organization’s mission is to aid in the protection, preservation and restoration of the natural environment of the country’s major rivers and their respective watersheds; to expand awareness of environmental issues and responsibility encompassing the river; and to create a desire and an opportunity for stewardship and responsibility for a cleaner river environment. In the organization’s first summer of river cleanup in 1997, founder Chad Pregracke managed to remove 45,000 pounds of trash from the riverfront in the Quad Cities area.
Today, Living Lands & Waters can claim cleanup efforts along 24 rivers in 21 states, with 10 million pounds of garbage removed thanks to 114,923 volunteers. It all started with one man and a boat, growing to a fleet of five barges and heavy equipment today. The organization has grown through the ensuing years to include projects that enable individuals or small groups to participate in efforts such as Adopt-A-River Mile, much like highway adoption programs that puts beautification efforts in the hands of many. Community Cleanups, Invasive Species Removal and the MillionTrees Project are just some of the other programs that enable individuals to help improve waterways across the U.S.
Alternative Spring Break has been particularly impactful in Memphis, cleaning up McKellar Lake in Memphis. But while there is success to celebrate, it’s still a long process, starting from the early days when satellite imagery made McKellar Lake look like a field of snow, thanks to the abundance of floating plastic containers. Unfortunately, the crew still needs to come back each year because new collections of trash continue to wash up and sit in the lake. Having personally been part of the McKellar Lake cleanup efforts, it’s something we as a community need to take a more proactive approach in addressing. Luckily for us, though, Living Lands & Waters is firmly committed to continue helping provide support and hope for our community.
The next cleanup of McKellar Lake will take place March 8-26, 2020. Only 200 of the nearly 700 volunteers this year were students, so the effort depends on more than college spring breakers. The organization heavily depends on volunteers as well as donations from individuals, corporations and foundations to support its work. For more information about volunteering, which I highly encourage and recommend, or donating to the important cleanup work of Living Lands & Waters, visit livinglandsandwaters.org.
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