Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A whole new world of trash

Down in mid-Missouri, where I live, trash and the Missouri River are somewhat synonymous. A common pastime during high water crests is to count the refrigerators as they float by. We’ve been known to spend hours nosing our boats into rafts of driftwood picking out plastic trash before the river levels drop.

At River Relief’s home port, Cooper’s Landing near Columbia, MO., we’ve had five consecutive years of river clean-ups. We really seem to be making a dent…the river is much cleaner than in the past. It has something to do with the relatively low water we’ve had in recent years, I’m sure, but we’ve definitely had an impact on the general background noise of plastic.

So, I had the feeling that the upper reaches of the Missouri would be similar, that once we hit a few towns and tributaries, we’d be knee deep in trash once again.

Not the case, as the MegaScout showed us.

When you look at our MegaScout trash map, you can see the influence that big cities, and even small towns, have on the trash ratings in their vicinity and downstream. But until we hit Kansas City, we didn’t see anything like what we are used to down here.

Near Kansas City, three major tributaries enter the Big Muddy: the Kansas River (the Kaw), the Platte and the Blue. Each of these passes through urban and suburban areas, collecting more than their share of trash on their way to the Missouri. By the time we passed the Blue River (which had a small mountain of trash at its mouth), the banks on both sides of the river were blanketed with an even coating of plastic mulch. Bottoms adjacent to the river were choked with balls, toys, barrels and tires. And bottles and bottles and bottles…

As we progressed downstream, the density of trash abated somewhat, but in certain areas where the river widens out, the amount of trash was still much more than anything we’d seen upstream.

I am most familiar with the Blue River, which empties much of the Kansas City metro area. The Blue River Rescue, a huge volunteer clean-up along many miles of the Blue, takes place each April. It’s been going on for 15 years and every year tons and tons of trash get pulled out of that river. Yet, undisputedly, the banks of the Missouri River below the mouth of the Blue were the trashiest we saw on the previous 420 miles.

Something else about the Blue. Kansas City’s treated wastewater gets put right into the Blue (adding to its otherworldly aroma). What I didn’t know until recently is that Kansas City has a combined storm and wastewater sewer system. There are not separate pipes for what gets flushed and what runs off the streets. When there is a local rain event, the system gets overwhelmed, and only about 5% of the city’s wastewater gets treated. Everything else gets flushed into the Blue, then into the Missouri.

Kansas City is not the only place where this sort of thing happens, and the city is in the process of beginning to fix that problem (more about that in later blogs).

Just downstream of the Blue, a small stream enters the Missouri called Lazy Branch. The creek comes out of Independence and Sugar Creek, Mo., and by the time it gets to the Missouri, it is full of white foam and has a caustic odor of detergent combined with sewage. I will be looking into what is going in this creek to pass that knowledge on, but this is what I can report to you from what we saw on the MegaScout:

Below Lazy Branch, the riprap and sand that lines the Missouri’s banks become coated with a green algae. The smell from the small creek extends for miles downstream. At the sandbar we camped at that night, about five miles downstream near the town of Missouri City, we awoke completely socked in by a thick river fog. Trapped within the fog was that same caustic odor I noticed at Lazy Branch.

There were several places along our journey where we didn’t feel right swimming in the river because of inflows we noticed pouring in. This was one of them, but I admit that I went ahead and swam anyway, ignoring the strange odor.

I hope to be around one day when the Missouri River has gained more respect from those of us that live along it. A day when the idea of dumping our leftovers and undesired waste into its waters will seem blasphemous and people will be angered by the idea. Will you join us in making this day happen?

-Steve Schnarr

Friday, August 11, 2006

Becoming Trash Scientists

This blog contains a lot of personal reflections about this trip down the Missouri. It has given us an opportunity to share aspects of living on the river and our deepening relationship with her.

But first and foremost, we are on this river to become trash scientists.

The product of this journey is an evolving database about trash on the Missouri: where it tends to accumulate, what patterns in density are there in relation to population centers, where are there historic and recent dumps, how are trash densities different on different stretches of the river? Basically: How trashed is the Big Muddy?

What better way to answer that question than to get out on this river?

As our boats move downstream, each boat scouts a bank of the river. The crews on board scan the shore with binoculars while the boat pilot checks out the big picture. The conversation is, admittedly, a little boring:

Scout: “Is that a log or a hot water heater?”

Pilot: “I can’t tell. Let’s go check it out” (Boat swings behind wing dike. An electric whine as pilot tilts boat motor. A heron spreads its wings and vacates the area with an annoyed squawk.)

Scout (squinting through binocs): “It’s a hot water heater. Can you get in there?”

(Pilot shrugs, and Scout moves to the bow of the boat, probing the depth of the water with a canoe paddle as the boat moves to shore. As they land, Scout hops ashore, takes a digital photo of the heater, marks the point on handheld GPS unit, and approaches the appliance with a spray paint can.)

As our first week progressed, we kept coming up with more questions. Where are these refrigerators coming from? How far do they travel? Finally, Charlotte Overby came up with the idea of spray-painting the river mile, date, and MRR on the backside of appliances. We know that high water will lift many of these huge objects again, sending them further downstream. We are hoping that, either in river clean-ups or by talking to people who spend time on the river, we’ll find out where some of these things end up and how long it takes them to move.

Each of those points that are GPSed, from a single refrigerator to a local dump site, are recorded separately on our data sheet. In addition, each mile on the river gets rated for the trash density and what kind of trash there is.

This is the scale:

0 Clean to rare small trash
1 Scattered small trash
2 Small trash scattered & occasionally in concentrations
3 Like 2 but with occasional large trash
4 Frequent concentrations of trash, scattered large trash
5 Freq. concentrations,large trash &/or dumps

Again, more scintillating conversation:

Scout: “What do you think, a 2?”

Pilot: “I don’t know. There wasn’t much small stuff, but there were those barrels and that refrigerator and that boat access was pretty trashed. I think it’d be a 3”

Scout: “I agree.” (bends over data sheet and scribbles entry: “3 barrels, refrigerator, small trash at boat access, less small trash rest of the mile”)

All of this data collected during the day, including photos, comments, trash ratings and GPS points get entered into our laptop “Betty” each night around the campfire. Dan is the data entry guy. His presence right there on the river makes the whole thing work better, and any questions he has on someone’s rating or comments get answered as the data goes in.

The data is entered into spreadsheets that are linked to an ARC-GIS map of the Missouri River. With software donated by the St. Charles office of ESRI, Tim Nigh, Dan Belshe and Kim Horton (of Mo-RAP) created a linkable route file following the channel of the river. Once the data is entered, users can click on any point on the river, and find out what the trash rating and any comments for that stretch is. Any point files or photos show up as a star, and can be accessed by a click.

The major innovation that Dan, Tim and Kim developed is a color-coded line that follows each bank of the river. “Zero” trash ratings show up as a cool blue, and the colors range from yellow to orange to red as you move up the scale.

As you zoom out from the map, the patterns become obvious. On the upper reaches of the river, small trash tends to collect on the inside of the river bends. At each population center, there is a flash of orange or red, as more trash ends up on the banks. Depending on the size of the city, the higher ratings often continue downstream.

For big cities, such as Omaha, there are often pulses of trash downstream, possibly showing where high water events have dropped trash as river levels crested and fell. At points where the river widens on a sharp bend, there are often larger accumulations of trash. Some communities show an obvious dedication to cleaning up their banks, while other places are more neglected.

So what do we do with this information?

Some of these maps are already being used. Vicki Richmond is working the “West Coast” of the Missouri River, planning our fall clean-ups in Omaha, Atchison and Sugar Creek (see our website www.riverrelief.org for specifics). She’s been whipping the maps out in meetings, showing visibly to our clean-up partners what we will be accomplishing on those weekends. They are already proving useful in coming up with strategies for getting people out on the river and getting the trash out of there.

We will be working on getting maps to other communities and government agencies along the river. If you have an interest in cleaning up your stretch of the Missouri, contact us so we can get the info to you. We won’t be able to clean every stretch of the Missouri ourselves, but by working with YOU, our community of fellow river lovers, we hope to make a dent in changing the way people view this wonderful resource.

Thanks to a donation from ESRI, the designers and distributers of the ARC software that we used for these maps, we will work toward getting these maps online, making the information accessible to everyone along the river.

Also, we will be using these maps as educational tools, showing children how the plastic bottles and tires that end up in their streams will travel and collect further downstream on the Big Muddy. That we all live both upstream and downstream, and the only ones that can make a difference in the quality of our rivers are US and it all starts in our backyards.

Please contact us if you have comments, questions or requests for information. Or just to let us know that you want to play a part in our mission to clean-up the Missouri River.

Missouri River Relief
P.O. Box 463
Columbia, MO 65205
(573) 443-0292
email: riverrelief@riverrelief.org
website: www.riverrelief.org