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Project AWARE Removes Tons of Trash from the Iowa River
Posted: 07/17/2012
Project AWARE staff remove garbage collected from canoeHard work. Summer heat. Dirt and Grime. Oh, and you’re wet much of the time. The recipe for a week’s vacation? It was for Iowa’s Project AWARE paddlers. Again.

By now, the couple hundred volunteers have hosed down their canoes, kayaks and lifejackets. Probably the clothes they wore, too. They were too grimy for the washing machine. Yet many of them keep coming back. 

“Somewhere between breakfast, getting out on the river—getting extremely dirty—and another exhausting day, the magic happens,” explains AWARE coordinator Brian Soenen.

He plans AWARE from the DNR’s Geological and Water Survey bureau in Iowa City. Lots of on-scene support comes from the staff there, too. 

“Looking back at what you’ve done; feeling the pain from all the work…people internalize that. There is something about it that gets in your blood and keeps you coming back for more.”

Maybe it’s the dumpsters of garbage which will be sorted and recycled…rather than jutting out of the river in the years ahead. Maybe it’s floating down those rivers for a day, or a week…knowing that you’re making a difference.

“It’s a lot of fun. We’re getting a lot done. Somebody has to do it,” states Darrell Brotherson of Cedar Bluff; one of the volunteers who helped pull garbage out of the Iowa River all of last week in north and central Iowa. “Not a better group in the world to do it than us. Take a look at these people.”

Just short of the halfway point Friday, on-shore volunteers were ankle deep, emptying the paddlers’ haul as they coasted in to a sandbar on the low-flowing Iowa River near Union. Or was it Lipscomb? AWARE passes close to dozens of Iowa towns.

Brotherson brought in an assortment of cans…and a fence-post, anchored in a bucket of cement. “It was just up there on an eroded riverbank. I’m sure it was part of a farmer’s fence at one time. Just got ripped out by the ice,” he speculated.

Metal posts and scrap metal make up a lot of the volume. Thousands of beverage containers are sorted along the way. And tires. LOTS of tires. 

“This year was dubbed ‘the Year of the Tire,’ smiled Soenen. “We pulled out 1,350 of them; nearly 60 tons of trash altogether. That’s a record.”

Swing sets, bicycles, engine blocks, inner tubes, shed doors, twisted docks and LOTS of plastic go into the canoes.

An abandoned meth lab? A couple have shown up. Volunteers are instructed in what to look for, how to avoid one and to report it.

Nothing surprises veterans of AWARE, which marked its 10th year targeting the Iowa River from about Clarion to Marshalltown.

A very low-flowing Iowa River, by the way. On one hand, more trash is visible. On the other, you can’t haul out as much. “You’re riding lower in the water. You’re dragging bottom before long. The volunteers work incredibly hard to get it in; still filling boats with garbage,” applauded Soenen. It also meant shorter routes on some days; since the floats were slower and there was more walking than in previous years.

At the end of each day’s float, volunteers shuttle their canoes to that night’s overnight stop…or pull out of the water there. From there, it’s time to clean up, eat and relax. Maybe explore the area.

Organizers have infotainment sessions for the evenings. Come morning, it is breakfast…announcements for that day’s float…and then back at it. All with one purpose.

“We are able to help clean that (stretch of the river) up. It helps the landowner, the community and the quality of life,” summarizes Soenen.

“Instead of having all this garbage along the river, that might deter recreation or blemish an otherwise beautiful river…these volunteers give back to those communities; in many cases their own community. They make things a better place.”

A short break. Then planning starts for AWARE 2013.