Missouri River Relief celebrates 10th anniversary with Big Muddy cleanup

Monday, September 26, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Missouri River Relief volunteers Diane Oerly, front, and Anthony Pettit move piles of trash to a boat Saturday, September 17, 2011, along the Missouri River. The trash was collected by 17 volunteers earlier that day. The goal is to move all the trash to the same location so that when a barge comes, it is easier to pick up.

COLUMBIA — A barge floating down the Missouri River this fall will have an unusual load: up to 40 tons of garbage.

Missouri River Relief has chartered this 130-foot-long boat for the Big Muddy Clean Sweep, an effort to clean up the Missouri River between Kansas City and St. Louis. The sweep began earlier this month on the west side of the state and a cleanup is set for Saturday in Jefferson City.

Big Muddy Clean Sweep

Missouri River Relief is holding the Big Muddy Clean Sweep, seven weeks of cleanups and education events from Kansas City to St. Louis. A mid-Missouri cleanup will be Saturday in Jefferson City. About 300 volunteers are expected, said Steve Schnarr, program manager of the group.

What: Cleanup of Missouri River banks and trails

When: Saturday

8:30 a.m.:  Registration

9 a.m. to noon: Cleanup. Volunteers may also stay later to help sort the trash.

Where: Carl R. Noren Public Fishing Access area, near Fourth Street and Cottonwood Drive, Jefferson City

What to wear: Clothes suitable for working outside. Mud boots are recommended and long pants are preferred as weeds and poison ivy can be thick. No flip-flops or open-toed shoes are allowed on boats. Bring sunscreen and bug spray.

What is provided: Lunch, T-shirt, trash bags, gloves and reusable water bottle.

To learn more and get directions, go to

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This event also marks the group's 10th anniversary. Since it began, more than 14,000 volunteers have picked up 592 tons, or more than a million pounds, of garbage, according to a news release.

Jim Karpowicz, one of the founders, said the group was originally inspired by cleanups along the Mississippi River led by environmentalist Chad Pregracke. He founded the nonprofit Living Lands and Waters a few years before Karpowicz's group began.

“After the great floods of '93 and '95, those bottoms in there were just absolutely covered with trash," Karpowicz said. "Drums and cans and just crud. You’d run by it every day and it’s like, 'Well, gosh, does this have to be that way?'"

He said he saw picking up trash along the rivers as a simple, direct response to an environmental problem.

That simple approach took a sophisticated turn several years ago when the group surveyed 754 miles of the river, from Ponca, Neb., to its confluence with the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.

"We floated the river in two jon boats and mapped the trash," said Tim Nigh, another founder and longtime volunteer with the group. "We saw every mile of the river below the dams."

After surveying it in 2006, the group created a trash database.

Earlier this year, the group mapped the river again, this time from above. They partnered with Ecoflight, a nonprofit that uses small planes to highlight conservation issues. For this survey, members of the group flew along the river from one end of the state to the other.

These surveys map large amounts of trash and help guide the organization's clean up efforts.

“We try to do these inventories so we can make the most impact,” Nigh said.

Allison Kellenberger and her family have volunteered for three years. She said some volunteers, including her sometimes, scout a site before a cleanup. They find trash that other volunteers then remove.

Getting the trash out isn't easy. Shovels, saws, sledge hammers and blow torches are some of the tools volunteers use, Nigh said. Sometimes the participants have to knot cables around a piece of garbage and then yank it out.

People dump some of this trash onto the river banks, but much of it comes from storm runoff. During heavy rain, more trash is washed into the river and its tributaries.

"Anything that floats — a plastic bottle, or a tire, or a kids’ rubber ball — that all washes out of those storm drains and into the river and it collects in these big drift piles," Karpowicz said. "And that’s what we’re working on now."

The group’s website lists the results of many cleanups. The latest entry, from an event along 12 miles of river near St. Joseph, gathered more than six tons of waste. Some of the stranger items included a big-screen TV, the contents of someone's entire office and a kitchen sink.

They also found a note in a bottle at the cleanup, which happens at nearly every event, Kellenberger said. River Relief tries to contact the writer. They tell them where they found the note and sometimes add: "Please don't throw trash in the river."

But most of what they find is more mundane, like plastic bottles and chunks of Styrofoam, said Steve Schnarr, the group's program manager.

This garbage also impacts the river's life.

Tim Grace, fisheries regional supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said he has found fish with rubber bands wrapped around their bodies or entangled in a plastic six-pack holder.

"Sometimes a fish or another animal will get into that and not be able to get it off," he said. "It’s a pretty nasty incident."

The group has found other dangerous items such as metal drums with oil or other chemicals inside.

"That contaminates not only the water that we drink but also the soil along the river," Schnarr said.

Although the group began in Columbia, it now covers a much larger area, from St. Louis to Yankston, S.D.

"So that’s sort of the difference that I see, is we’ve gone from a local organization to an organization with true national importance," Karpowicz said.

As the organization expanded in the past decade, Nigh and Karpowicz said the river has improved. Karpowicz said volunteers find fewer dump piles than they used to and Nigh said larger items aren't found as often.

“Ten years ago, you couldn’t go a half-mile without seeing big refrigerators, tires, barrels,” Nigh said. “Now we’ve really put a dent in it.”

Kellenberger said it's our responsibility to take care of the river and it affects many aspects of our life.

"We need to make people aware that it’s not just a big ditch in our backyard," she said. "It’s a living thing and we have to give back to that."

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Steve Schnarr September 26, 2011 | 12:16 p.m.

Thanks for the great story! The barge is currently in Hermann, on its way to Jefferson City tomorrow. Thanks to Hermann Sand & Gravel and Capitol Sand for giving us a lift upriver! We couldn't do it without you.

Keep track of the Big Muddy Clean Sweep here:

And come help at our Oct. 1 Jefferson City Clean-up -

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