Small Environmental Groups Can Make a Big Difference

By Louise Fenner
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Environmental groups in the United States come in many sizes, from the 1.3 million-member Sierra Club to small neighborhood groups that clean trash from their local streams, monitor water quality and plant trees to prevent erosion.  Even the smallest grassroots groups can have a big impact. 

Living Lands and Waters (LL&W) consists of fewer than a dozen people who live on a barge on the Mississippi River and direct river cleanup projects in their region.  Members went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to clear debris, and once a year the group travels to Washington to organize a volunteer cleanup of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Throughout the United States, citizens are joining “stream teams” - groups of volunteers that collect water samples and other data to monitor the health of their local watersheds (drainage areas). These nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide information to government agencies and lawmakers and press for effective laws against polluters.  They focus on local problems but are frequently part of national coalitions.

At the neighborhood level, people who want to protect the small streams or creeks flowing through their back yards are forming tiny “subwatershed” groups, increasingly important tools for protecting the rivers that are fed by these streams, said Brian Van Wye of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) in Washington.

“These are citizens in their communities who are the eyes and ears and voice of their creek,” he told USINFO.  “They get involved in volunteer cleanup activities, restoration activities, and they notice if something’s going on that shouldn’t be going on and try to urge government officials to do the right thing, to hold businesses and polluters accountable - all the good things citizens can do by being involved.”

Van Wye said the focus within the Washington environmental community is on fostering the growth of these subwatershed groups.

“I see citizen involvement as essential to getting our rivers cleaned up,” he said.

ECC, the group for which Van Wye works, provides environmental training opportunities for disadvantaged young people in the Washington metropolitan area. It works on restoring the Anacostia, which Van Wye says receives more than 70,000 tons of trash, sediment and pollutants from storm-water runoff every year.

For the past month, ECC and several other local groups have been working with LL&W on its annual monthlong cleanup of the Potomac and Anacostia.  They put out a call to federal agencies, NGOs and the general public for volunteers to don gloves and spend a few hours picking up tires, plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, discarded toys and tons of other debris resulting from storm-water runoff.

Capital River Relief, as the project is called, was started after LL&W founder Chad Pregracke flew to Washington in 2002 to receive a Jefferson Award for Public Service in recognition of his work to clean up the Mississippi River.  He is based on a barge docked in East Moline, Illinois.

“I just could not believe all the garbage I saw on the shore of the Potomac,” Pregracke told USINFO. “There was two feet [.61 meters] of garbage on the shore in some places.” 

As he has done in Illinois, Pregracke set up coalitions of local groups and agencies and obtained corporate sponsorship.  In the past four years, “we’ve had a couple thousand people come out and volunteer with us” in Washington, he said.  In 2006, Capital River Relief collected more than 2,600 bags of debris from the Potomac and Anacostia.

Since Living Lands and Waters was launched about 10 years ago, 40,000 volunteers have helped collect 4 million tons of discarded appliances, tires and trash, Pregracke said.

On April 18, one of the volunteers was U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, who led a group of Interior Department employees participating in a volunteer program called Take Pride in America.  Three boatloads of volunteers were taken to Oxon Cove on the Potomac River.  As they approached the shore, they could see perhaps 2,000 plastic and glass bottles carpeting the ground and floating in the water.

“It was incredible,” said Kempthorne.

“We need to understand that what we do in our neighborhoods affects everything else,” he said, noting that litter thrown on the street kilometers away from a river ultimately can end up in the ocean. A project such as Capital River Relief “shows the tremendous power of volunteerism,” Kempthorne said.  “This is trash that won’t end up in habitats down river.”

Kristen Ellis with LL&W said that after volunteering for the cleanup “a lot of people say ‘I’m never littering again.’  I’ve heard that several times.  People are dumbfounded when they see the trash.”

Chris Fenderson, who also traveled from Illinois for the cleanup, said one of the group’s main goals “is to get people out and show them the garbage and show them they can do something about it.  We want to leave a lasting impression that you can do something.”

Additional information is available on the Web sites of Capital River Relief, Living Lands and Waters and the Earth Conservation Corps.

See also “Tending the Rivers” with a related article on Chad Pregracke and Living Lands and Waters in the the eJournal Protecting the Environment.

For more information, see Earth Day.