Gary Nobles, wearing old, tatty clothes and a pair of waterproof boots, ambled through the woods on a rainy April morning last year to a small creek in Reston called Snakeden Branch.
Leading a group of neighborhood 9- and 10-year-olds, Nobles explained their tough task, which for fun he likened to an Easter egg hunt. But rather than toting decorated baskets and looking for eggs, they held plastic bags and set their sights on trash.
ÒWho knew picking up litter could be fun?Ó said Nobles, a Reston resident. ÒBut they had a great time.Ó
After the group swept through a long stretch of creek, Nobles remembered one child looking back and saying, ÒWow, look at the difference.Ó
That day, as part of the 17th annual Potomac Watershed Cleanup, organized by the nonprofit environmental education group Alice Ferguson Foundation, 5,875 volunteers at 309 sites in four states and Washington, D.C., helped cleanup local waterways. It was a record day: nearly 218 tons of old tires, shopping carts, cans, bottles, basketballs and other debris were pulled off the banks of rivers and creeks. Since the eventÕs inception, more than 25,000 volunteers have removed more than 2 million pounds of trash.
ÒItÕs making a difference you can see,Ó said Nobles, taking a shot at coining a catch phrase for the event.
THIS YEARÕS CLEANUP, set for April 8, will again involve hundreds of sites throughout the region. ÒWe expect another record year in the number of sites and volunteers,Ó said Tracy Bowen, executive director of Alice Ferguson.
The 15,000-square-mile Potomac River watershed, Bowen said, continues to be flooded with trash and litter, which negatively affects property values, recreation and tourism. In addition, litter removal costs local governments millions. But the debris, which can sometimes seep toxins into the water, can also be a public-health threat and harm wildlife.
When some trash, particularly small plastic debris, reaches the waterways, it is sometimes digested by birds, said Holly Bramford, a program manager for marine debris with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. ÒAs they ingest these particles, they feel full and they actually starve to death,Ó said Bramford.
EACH YEAR, volunteers bag common debris, like various beverage containers, but they also find the unexpected. In past years, there have been strollers, office chairs, swords, bikes, mattresses, refrigerators and skateboards. Last year, volunteers found a Kawasaki motorcycle, a windsurf board, a Civil War sword and sheath and an old cash register, said Bowen.
While about 6,000 people are expected to volunteer this year, itÕs a big jump from the 50 who gathered for the inaugural cleanup at site down river from Washington, D.C., near Accokeek.
ÒIt is sort of magical in how itÕs grown to what is today,Ó said Curtis Dalpra, communications manager of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, a regional organization that coordinates protection efforts across the watershed. The cleanup also hopes to change behavior. ÒA lot of litter occurs not because people donÕt care, but because people donÕt understand the impact of their behaviors,Ó said Dalpra.
ThatÕs why the cleanup event also acts as an environmental education event, said Bowen, who estimates that more than a third of the volunteers are people under 18. In past years, site leaders made it a point to explain to volunteers how trash can travel large distances downstream and how it makes its way from the streets into the Potomac, the second-largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
EFFORTS ARE ALSO underway to eliminate watershed trash at its source.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams and elected officials from four counties in southern Maryland and Fairfax County signed the Potomac River Watershed Trash Treaty, which set the goal of a trash-free watershed by 2013.
ÒWe want out of the trash business,Ó said Bowen, referring to the importance of the treaty. ÒWe think the cleanup is merely a Band-Aid for the problem and weÕre trying to get to the solution.Ó
Last month, a Potomac Watershed Trash Summit was held at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to promote a more comprehensive approach to trash prevention involving regional collaboration between all watershed jurisdictions to reach the 2013 goal.
Local governments signed off on an action agreement designed to focus government and private efforts toward changing public behavior about litter. The plan also includes a one-year effort to map trash Òhot spotsÓ in the watershed.
For more on the trash summit, see www.potomaccleanup.org.