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Filtering the Potomac

Looking ahead to 16th annual Watershed Cleanup, river advocates hope to raise awareness year-round.

People go to great lengths for trash, said Bryan Seipp. He’s seen them scale trees, wade hip-deep into dirty water, drag sheet metal through the woods for a mile. “The lengths they go through, to get trash cleaned up? It’s amazing,” said Seipp.

As community action manager for the Potomac Conservancy, Seipp has overseen cleanup efforts for years during the annual Potomac River Cleanup weekend. He and other area environmental volunteers are gearing up for the next cleanup on April 3.

Organized by the Maryland-based Alice Ferguson Foundation, the annual Potomac River Watershed cleanup will celebrate its 16th birthday this year with a push to break old records. During last year’s cleanup, more than 3,000 volunteers snared 117 tons of trash, including 59,400 recyclable bottles. To date, cleanups have pulled 1.7 million pounds of trash from the Potomac River and its banks.

Those are impressive numbers, said Tracy Bowen, spokeswoman for the Ferguson Foundation. But it would be better never to have the opportunity to set those records.

“It’s a watershed cleanup,” she said. “We want to clean up trash on land, before it even gets in the water.” Even better, she said, would be for the region’s residents to think more about where their trash goes. “We are not in the trash business. We want out. We want a trash-free river in 10 years.”

<b>PART OF THE PROBLEM</b> is that Arlington residents may not realize they’re connected to the river. There’s a tendency to overlook how near the Potomac is, said Elenor Hodges, executive director of Arlingtonians for a Cleaner Environment.

She takes volunteers to the cleanup weekends every year, and they have two reactions at being on the banks of the Potomac. “They’re amazed at its beauty, and they’re amazed at so much trash on it,” said Hodges.

A lot of the garbage is Styrofoam and plastic, she said: packing peanuts and plastic bags, bottles and fishing line. “One thing people say over and over: it’s three hours on a Saturday in April, and they could spend the whole time picking up Styrofoam peanuts,” said Hodges. “It’s … one of the most frustrating experiences. It’s tiny, but it’s something we don’t want there.”

There are also lots of cans and glass and plastic bottles, she said: recyclables that in many cases can’t be recycled. It’s a problem all along the river, said Bowen.

“The point of it isn’t to recycle all of it. A lot of it’s too dirty,” said Bowen. “This year, we’re trying to identify things that could have been prevented from getting in there.”

<b>THE REAL MESSAGE</b> behind the cleanup is to keep recyclables, and other trash, from getting in the river, said Seipp. That’s why it is a watershed cleanup, he said: to let people all around the area know that they live in the Potomac watershed, even if the river’s miles away.

“It gets the point across: watersheds are the area that impacts the river, and anything you do on the land is going to have an impact,” he said. “Throwing trash in the street, [it] could potentially end up in the river.”

For the Ferguson Foundation, that’s a year-round lesson. “We are in the business … of educating children,” said Bowen. “We work with students, help them go outside and have a meaningful connection with the outdoors.

“The goal is, to get a better understanding of what we have here, in order to take care of it.”

<b>Where to Clean Up</b>

<table border=1 cellpadding=2 cellspacing=0><tr><td><b>Site</b></td><td><b>Contact</b></td><td><b>Description</b></td></tr><tr><td><b>Roosevelt Island-George Washington Memorial Parkway</b></td><td><a href=“mailto:jlzettler@erols.com”>Jean Zettler</a></td><td>Can accommodate up to 100 volunteers. Parking is limited. Park in Rosslyn and walk down to the Island along the bike path or use Metro. Volunteers with canoes or kayaks needed.</td></tr><tr><td><b>Windy Run-Donaldson Run</b></td><td><a href=“mailto:jandrkoch@comcast.net”>John Koch</a> from the Mount Vernon Sierra Club</td><td>Rocky site can accommodate up to 20 volunteers. Not suitable for children, elderly or volunteers with disabilities.</td></tr><tr><td><b>Chain Bridge-Pimmit Run</b></td><td><a href=mailto:Dan.Radke@BellevueForest.org”>Daniel Radke</a></td><td>Can accommodate up to 40 volunteers. Parking limited, volunteers encouraged to carpool.</td></tr><tr><td><b>Gulf Branch-Pimmit Run</b></td><td><a href=“mailto:Dchauv@co.arlington.va.us”>Denise Chauvette</a></td><td>Rocky site. Not suitable for children.</td></tr><tr><td><b>* To suggest a new site</b></td><td><a href=“mailto:potomaccleanup@fergusonfoundation.org”>Alice Ferguson Foundation</a> at 301-292-5665</td><td>For this year, or future cleanups</td></tr></table>