One day a year for the last 24 years, several thousand volunteers have spread out throughout the Milwaukee River Basin to pick up trash. But this year is different, the coronavirus forced the Milwaukee Riverkeeper organization to cancel its 25th cleanup.
The science-based, water advocacy group says the annual cleaning up of tons of trash that accumulates over the winter helps the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic and Milwaukee River watersheds, but it also helps connect people to the natural resource.
David Thomas is one of the people trying to make up for the cancellation of the official cleanup. He helps lead the Friends of Lincoln Park group. The park covers a winding section of the Milwaukee River, south of Silver Spring Drive.
“[The Friends of Lincoln Park is] a small group of people but the annual river cleanup draws 100 volunteers and we collect over 200 bags of trash. We really do a thorough cleaning of all the trash. But right now, it’s really hard to keep up with all that trash,” Thomas says.
To encourage people to come out and help, Thomas created a map of "hot spots" in Lincoln Park.
"When the park was dredged out in 2015 to 2017, they did a lot of planting of natives along the banks, so there's all these areas of native species – very beautiful in the summer, but they do catch a lot of trash and debris that just blows through," Thomas explains.
Thomas says although he wished he saw more toting and filling of garbage bags, he is encouraged by the number of people he sees enjoying the river. "There are a lot more people in the park enjoying the birds, enjoying the fishing. So that relationship between the park and the wildlife and the people who visit has evolved a little bit during the pandemic," he says.
A 20-minute drive to the southwest on the Menomonee River, Christa Gensler had been looking forward to leading a cleanup crew for the first time.
"We were going to be on the corner of North Avenue and the Menomonee Parkway, just a little west of the central area of Wauwatosa,” she explains.
Up until a couple of years ago, Gensler knew nothing about the cleanup or Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the organization that coordinates it.
“The church bulletin had an advertisement for the spring cleanup so that’s how I first heard about it. The river goes a long, long way and if everyone does a little piece of it, what a great thing,” she says.
Since the big, one-day, spring cleanup couldn’t happen, Gensler and a friend have given the spot they "adopted" through Milwaukee Riverkeeper's Adopt-A-River program a little extra TLC.
“We have a portion of the Menomonee River, near Jacobus Park. We just jumped right in, social distanced ourselves. We’ve done that twice so far,” she says.
Matt Wolter jumped into the annual spring cleanup when he was an undergrad at UW-Milwaukee in the early 2000s.
Since then, he has done every Milwaukee Riverkeeper volunteer job in the book: “I signed up for river monitoring so we go to sites in the Menomonee, the Milwaukee River and the KK (Kinnickinnic). And then for the river cleanups, I became a site captain. I’ve done the Adopt-A-River program, now I’m on year three. I have a site near St. Luke’s [Hospital], so I go pretty just myself now. Oh yeah, I’ve done emerging contaminants sampling.”
Wolter hopes his example and love of nature will inspire his 4- and 5-year-old children to join the next generation of riverkeepers. “I love to see the changes throughout the seasons and the fluctuations of nature. You really see things differently when you’re out along the river and you notice things when you slow down,” he says.
I meet Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s Cheryl Nenn for a socially-distanced conversation along the Milwaukee River, off Capitol Drive.
Normally, Nenn would be training people to join Matt Wolter and other volunteers on how to monitor the quality of the three rivers within the basin, instead she says with a laugh, “It’s Cheryl Nenn with a plastic bag.”
“There’s so much plastic trash in particular," Nenn says. "Single-use plastic is probably 80% or more of what we pick up. That can be plastic bags, plastic bottles, Styrofoam containers, plastic chip bags.”
The river pounds the plastics down to small pieces, which, Nenn says, fish and other aquatic life ingest. “It can definitely be a stressor to wildlife and in the worst possible circumstance, can kill wildlife,” she says.
The Milwaukee River Basin, along with rivers, streams and lakes around the state, need public support more than ever, Nenn says. “Clean water is important. We need people to help us protect it and we need to keep advocating for more funding because we do have a lot of challenges to meeting those swimmable and fishable goals," she says.
Though the big, annual, spring cleanup was canceled, riverkeeping activity is gradually resuming. In early June, volunteers began slipping on their waders to do water monitoring and Nenn will begin training small groups of new volunteers to join in.
And, Friends of Lincoln Park will host its inaugural Summer DIY Cleanup June 19 and 20. Starting times will be staggered to support social distancing, and friends members wearing masks will hand out freshly sanitized pick-up sticks, maps and bags.
People who love their parks and the water that runs through them are determined to cleanup and carry on with stewarding the nature humans depend on.
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