Alabama Power retiree Gene Phifer spent some of the best days of his childhood on the Coosa River.
A native of Gadsden, Phifer filled many hours fishing, swimming and soaking up the sun near or on the water. These memories would go on to shape his career and help clean waterways across the Southeast.
Phifer’s childhood, love of his hometown and appreciation of the state’s natural resources inspired him to start a local river cleanup in 1999 near his job at Gadsden Steam Plant. That cleanup grew into Renew Our Rivers, one of the nation’s largest cleanups of its kind.
“It’s a movement that’s brought on by people that want to make things better,” Phifer said. “Yeah, I had the idea, but, if it hadn’t been for all those people that wanted to do it too, it never would have gone anywhere.”
Now in its 20th year, Renew Our Rivers has witnessed 120,000 volunteers removing more than 15.5 million pounds of trash and debris from lakes and rivers in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida. It has also educated thousands of people about the importance of protecting the environment and biodiversity.
‘Real bond with this river’
As soon as Phifer was old enough to boat with his father, the two spent considerable time on the Coosa.
“I have a real bond with this river system,” he said.
After a brief career in education, Phifer joined Alabama Power and worked at Plant Gadsden for 29 years, first in chemistry, then environmental and lastly regulatory compliance.
Phifer first had the idea about a river cleanup in the early 1990s, but several large projects around the plant prevented immediate action. In early 1999, he approached his supervisor, Wayne Edwards, with the idea about picking up trash and debris in the river near the plant.
“I had an idea what needed to be done, and he said go for it, and I’ll back you up,” Phifer said.
From there, other plant employees bought in. That spring, about 20 Alabama Power employees removed 3,000 pounds of trash and debris from the Coosa River.
‘Mountain of debris’
The group realized that one cleanup wouldn’t be enough. That summer, Alabama Power employees met with other local stakeholders at Gadsden City Hall to plan a communitywide cleanup in 2000. From that meeting, Renew Our Rivers was born.
During the first cleanup, volunteers pulled 16 tons from the Coosa River in and around Gadsden. The city intentionally had the debris placed in the amphitheater parking lot, in full view of U.S. Highway 411 and all the traffic that passed through the city.
“It was a mountain of debris, and it really got people’s attention. There was some skepticism of how it would make the city look if we put that all in the parking lot and people drove by and saw it,” Phifer said. “But the mayor said that as far as we were concerned people needed to know what was coming out of the river system.”
The first cleanup became a prototype for future cleanups in the Gadsden area and throughout the state, and cleanups moved from the Coosa River to the Tallapoosa River and Smith Lake and beyond. The campaign spread into Georgia, Mississippi and Florida.
“I hope it continues – every year is a learning experience, and we want to make it better and better,” Phifer said.
Mike Clelland, who now oversees the program as environmental affairs specialist for Alabama Power, said the program has continued to grow.
“Because of Gene identifying a need and his vision of putting together a community effort, Renew Our Rivers thrives today,” Clelland said. “His passion for a clean waterway is infectious and spreads to all those that have worked with him. That passion has been carried all across the state. I’m proud to have Gene’s example as I try to steer this great program.”
As a former educator, Phifer encourages people to work to make a difference.
“You can go through life and not take any chances and that’s OK – to be real safe. But if you take a risk on something important, then that’s a risk worth taking,” Phifer said.
Renew Our Rivers is one of many initiatives in which Alabama Power partners with others to promote conservation and environmental stewardship in communities across the state. Learn more about Renew Our Rivers and how you can join the campaign at alabamapower.com/renewourrivers.
This story originally appeared in Shorelines magazine.