It’s a gray Saturday morning in Washington, D.C. The sky is full of clouds, threatening rain, but Kenilworth Park isn’t empty. In fact, a large group of people are gathered around a tent in the park’s large, open field. But they’re not here for flag football or barbecuing; they’re here to work.
Today is the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) Earth Day Cleanup, and all of these people came out to Kenilworth Park to volunteer. As the overcast sky begins to shed its first drops of rain, they break off into smaller groups and head out to different sections of the park. Some begin scouring the field for trash, others head toward the Anacostia River—which cuts through the park—and some begin working on one of the river’s smaller tributaries.
While the Kenilworth group is large, they’re just a small portion of the 2,400 volunteers who signed up to take part in today’s cleanup at 31 different sites around D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland. Today seems like a large-scale cleanup effort—because it is—but AWS’s day of action is part of an even larger network of cleanups called Project Clean Stream, hosted by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. For the past 13 years, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has coordinated cleanups around the Chesapeake region. This year, cleanups ran from Sandbridge, Virginia, all the way up to Westfield, Pennsylvania.
For some of the volunteers at Kenilworth Park, this is their first time participating in a cleanup. Many were drawn to the event through Broccoli City Fest, a local concert that offered tickets to people in exchange for community service at a number of designated locations. One volunteer, Hilina Kibron, remarked, “I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own time. This actually forces me to do it.”
For experts and newcomers alike, the day is a learning opportunity. After just a few hours of picking up bottle after bottle and a seemingly endless stream of Styrofoam containers, volunteers reflected on personal changes they wanted to make, and hopes they had for others. After cleaning up plastic bottles and even an oil drum, William Klein said, “I hope that it will bring more awareness about littering and trying prevent that so in the future we won’t have to have days like these because people will be more sustainable.”
Despite the trash, many saw the beauty of Kenilworth Park and the Anacostia River, and wanted others to see that as well. They expressed hope about the value that a clean natural space could bring to the community and its residents. Fajr Chestnut, volunteering with her young daughter Ryanna, summed it up best: “The river means health and sustainability and economic development, and it’s the basis for the community. Once it’s to the level where it’s supposed to be, people will be able to have recreation. It’s bettering the community; it’s making it look better, making it sound better, making it feel better. So it’s important to have a clean river.”
For the past decade, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has led Project Clean Stream--a vast network of organized annual trash cleanups along the Bay's many tributaries--to help clean up the Bay and connect residents to their local waterways.
During this year's unified day of service on Saturday, April 6, a group of 13 volunteers gathered near the small town of Marydel on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where resident Carol Sparks (not pictured) had reported an illegal dump site along a drainage ditch running adjacent to her property.
According to Sparks, residents from two nearby trailer parks often travel along the foot path adjacent to the ditch, and some have been dumping trash here for years. "I've called everybody and it seemed like nobody wanted to do anything about it. I finally contacted Debbie Rowe, the mayor of Marydel, and she's the one who organized this group, bless her heart."
"I got a call from the property owner that the ditch was in disrepair," said Rowe (below left, with volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr.), who had recently learned about Project Clean Stream through the Choptank Tributary Team, a volunteer watershed group from Easton, Md. "To be honest, I didn't know this was back here."
Jennifer Dindinger chairs the Choptank Trib Team, which was searching for neglected sites in neighboring Caroline County where they could make a bigger impact during this year's Project Clean Stream effort. "You don't see trash floating down the Choptank River, but there are places like this that, although it might not end up in the main stem of the Bay, negatively impact life along the tributaries to the river."
Despite the strong odor and armed with garden rakes and stainless steel dip nets, Project Clean Stream volunteers spent their Saturday morning combing through layers of algae in the stagnant drainage ditch. "It's just a nice thing to do on a sunny day," said William Ryall, a fellow Choptank Trib Team volunteer and wetland restoration engineer from Easton, Md. "All of these ditches are connected to the Bay, so it's really important to get this stuff out of here."
"We need everyone to understand how important the drainage is to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and what it will do health-wise and for the environment if we do it correctly," said Wilbur Levengood, Jr., president of the Caroline County Commissioners. "We don't need to bring huge machines in here and disturb a lot of earth to achieve the drainage, we just need to keep it clean."
According to Levengood, the many drainage ditches in Caroline County are an environmental compromise critical to this landscape. "Without these ditches, ponds and wetlands like the one next door to here would otherwise require chemical pesticides to control the mosquito population. Cleaning up the trash will lower the water level in this ditch by a few inches and get the water moving again."
While most of the trash collected from the Marydel site was of the household variety--36 bags total, including diapers, beverage containers and rotting food--a tell-tale oil slick is evidence of even more hazardous materials lying beneath the surface.
According to Levengood, non-salvageable appliances like television sets and mattresses, as well as toxic materials like motor oil and other automotive fluids that cost money to discard, are often thrown into the drainage ditches along Caroline County roads.
"It's not just necessarily that it looks bad. It's an all-around health hazard, and if we don't keep the water going it's just going to get stagnant and cause mosquitoes and more problems," said Mayor Rowe, who recruited local youth to help with the cleanup. "Now that we know it's here, we can all help as a community to help keep it clean and it'll be safe for everybody."
"My mom is friends with Ms. Debbie [Rowe], so she asked if I could come help with cleaning up trash from the ditch," said Gary Colby of Marydel (top), who in turn recruited his friend Daniel Santangelo. "I just wanted to help out Marydel," Santangelo said.
According to Rowe, part of the dumping problem stems from the challenge of cross-cultural communication. More than half of Marydel's population are Hispanic or Latino immigrants, but today's effort to reach the town's young people seems to be paying off.
"I just offered to help my buddies out," said Carlos Martinez (left), who moved to Marydel last year from Mexico City and volunteered with friends Omar Fuentes (center) and Jordy Cordova (right). "I know it's not young people littering because I know my friends."
"I think we just need to recycle more," said Cordova. Fuentes agrees. Like Mayor Rowe, he says "I never even noticed the trash in the ditch, and I've lived here for 10 years."
During a well-deserved break from the cleanup, Mayor Rowe and the other volunteers discussed the idea of posting bilingual signs to explain the ditch's importance in controlling the mosquito population, and to warn of health risks associated with litter and water pollution. Omar Fuentes and Jordy Cordova agree that signs in Spanish might help curb the littering problem, and promised to talk to their neighbors about the ditch. For first-time cleanup volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr., this point made the purpose of the day's effort overwhelmingly clear: "This project puts all aspects of people together working for the better, and we just need more of that."
When I moved to Annapolis last August, I wanted to be located near water and close to where I work at the Bay Program’s Eastport office. I moved into an apartment adjacent to Truxtun Park on Spa Creek. I enjoy kayaking, and the park has a boat ramp. In pretty short order, I met several people from the Spa Creek Conservancy, a local volunteer group working to restore and protect the creek. The Conservancy may be small in numbers, but it is huge in heart and enthusiasm.
(Image courtesy Spa Creek Conservancy)
On Saturday, April 14, I had the opportunity to join with other Conservancy members in a Project Clean Stream cleanup. When we assembled at the Chesapeake Children’s Museum, we were joined by a troop of Daisy Scouts out for a day of learning about the environment. They were as energetic as a swarm of bumble bees buzzing around a patch of wildflowers.
Along with the water, coffee, donuts, gloves and plastic bags at the volunteer sign-in table, we also set up a great aerial photo of the Spa Creek watershed that showed our location and all the areas that drain into the creek. The world looks a lot different from that vantage point. It was interesting to see how much of the area was covered by roads, rooftops and parking lots. These hard surfaces prevent rainwater from soaking into the soil to recharge streams and groundwater supplies.
During the cleanup, there was evidence everywhere of our consumer-based economy: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, fast food wrappers, plastic shopping bags, certain unmentionables, and even an occasional tire or two. As Aldo Leopold, a noted naturalist and conservationist once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Those words are perhaps even more meaningful now than when he first spoke them more than 70 years ago.
What I’ve witnessed working with the incredible members of the Spa Creek Conservancy, the Watershed Stewards Academy, the South River Federation and other local, civic-minded environmental groups throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a strong desire to re-establish that sense of community where we live, work, play and pray – to think about how nature functions and why we need to find ways to live in harmony with it. We get lost in our own sense of self-importance as we travel at 60 miles per hour (or more) trying to get from one place to another. Often, we don’t allow ourselves to spend a few hours a week seeking to understand nature. To paraphrase another great thinker, “We don't value what we don't know; we don't protect what we don't value."
The Spa Creek cleanup was a good way to reconnect with nature and see firsthand how, perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously, we abuse it. Once we understand that, we will all be motivated to do something about it.