As Renew Our Rivers celebrates its 20th year, longtime volunteers are remembering the early days of the campaign and how it has changed Alabama’s waterways for the better.
Many of the earliest Renew Our Rivers volunteers got plugged into the program through civic groups and home owner and boat owner associations (HOBOs). The organizations provide a solid base of volunteers who care about Alabama lakes and want to keep them beautiful.
Barbara Dreyer has lived on Lake Jordan since 1973 and has been active in her local HOBO for decades.
Judy Jones began working with Renew Our Rivers on Lay Lake even before she moved to the lake full time. In the program’s first year, she helped organize a picnic to celebrate the end of a cleanup. The picnic was such a success it has become an annual tradition to thank volunteers for their hard work.
They say each lake has its own unique needs and goals that Renew Our Rivers helps accomplish.
A strange haul
For the Kulbitskases on Smith Lake, a significant amount of time focuses on picking up pieces of Styrofoam that break off from boat docks. The team uses pontoon boats with special winches to pick up heavy, waterlogged pieces.
In the early years of Renew Our Rivers, pieces of white Styrofoam were commonly found across the lake; now Styrofoam is mostly encased in coverings. The covered style prevents smaller pieces from breaking off and becoming a danger to fish and other wildlife.
“We find less Styrofoam now after moving to the covered style, but even today when the water is low we’ll still find old pieces of uncovered white Styrofoam,” Kulbitskas said. “The Alabama Power team has been a big help in making sure big pieces of Styrofoam and other trash are removed. They have the equipment we need to maximize coverage of the lake and get debris onto the boats that would otherwise be difficult to collect.”
Over the years, volunteers on Lake Jordan have discovered some unusual items, including a refrigerator, Coca-Cola machine and toilets. Once, Dreyer said, they found a prosthetic leg, which was so realistic the team wondered if it had stumbled across a crime scene. One brave volunteer was able to pick up the limb in a net to determine it was in fact a prosthesis.
Once, a team of volunteers on Lay Lake found more than a leg. They came back claiming to have discovered a skeleton.
“They said they hadn’t called the police, so I asked if they moved it,” Jones said. “I was starting to realize they weren’t being serious, so I played along. Eventually, they told me that it wasn’t a real skeleton but just a Halloween decoration that had washed up on the shore.”
In its 20 years, Renew Our Rivers volunteers have collected more than 15.5 million pounds of trash and debris from across the Southeast, including more than 1 million at Smith Lake, 500,000 at Lay Lake and 140,000 at Lake Jordan.
Legacy of service
One of the greatest legacies of Renew Our Rivers is how it has created connections among volunteers, marinas, businesses and other organizations across the state. The lake residents say partnerships between Renew Our Rivers and local groups allow lake cleanups to become more effective and cover more ground.
Both Dreyer and Jones said Scout troops, school groups and business teams are reliable sources of volunteers. Each year brings new volunteers. Dreyer said participation has grown in the past two decades.
“We probably had 30 or 35 people at our very first cleanup, but now we have around 300 to 400,” Dreyer said. “There’s also a lot of young people joining now, which is great for the lake and the program.”
Jones is grateful for Renew Our Rivers, not only for its dedication to keeping Alabama’s waterways clean, but the relationships it fosters. The cleanups have helped her meet many people, and she looks forward to new faces every year.
“I love seeing all the volunteers coming to participate,” Jones said. “Doing these cleanups has helped me meet so many wonderful people over the years, and our partners, like Alabama Power, the county and local marinas, are such a big help.”
As Renew Our Rivers enters another decade, Jones, Dreyer and Kulbitskas hope to see the program continue to grow stronger and showcase the beauty of rivers and lakes across Alabama.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Shorelines.