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Rural Missouri Magazine

River relief
Removing refuse helps one group
reconnect citizens with Missouri’s rivers

by Jason Jenkins
After resting on the banks of the Osage River for decades, scrap metal in the dump was partially buried, requiring Missouri River Relief volunteers to use pry bars and extra muscle to remove it.

The tally reads like the inventory of a fictional appliance, auto parts and second-hand store: 38 refrigerators, 60 washing machines, 49 water heaters, 39 stoves, 68 tires, 12 wheels, eight car seats, five gas tanks, four mufflers, a microwave, a television, a unicycle, a manual typewriter, a jukebox, an enameled chamber pot.

The store may be fictional, but the inventory is real. Rather than filling a storefront window or a place on the sales floor, these items are strewn along a stretch of the bluffs overlooking the Osage River.

Hundreds of cans, buckets, barrels and bedsprings fill the gaps between the larger items, along with thousands of metal scraps no longer recognizable as household items. Layer upon layer of trash serves as a fossil record of sorts, a timeline tracing decades of now-illegal dumping.

Located just upstream of the Highway 50/63 Osage River bridge east of Jefferson City, the dump is so large that it’s even visible on the satellite images used by the software program, Google Earth.

“This is just crazy,” says Steve Schnarr, shaking his head in disbelief upon seeing the dump for the first time. Using his right hand to extend the bill of his baseball cap, he shields his eyes from the sun, squinting to discern how far up the bluff the trash goes. “I just can’t believe it.”

On this Saturday in early March, nearly 100 volunteers are working to remove this eyesore from the landscape and restore the natural beauty of the riverbank. Local residents work side by side with people who came from as far away as Kansas City to help. Soon, Steve’s 24-foot aluminum boat is piled high with scrap metal. He pulls away from the bank and heads back to the boat ramp where the scrap will be offloaded and sent to a nearby recycler.

A spectacular view of the Osage River valley east of Jefferson City can be seen atop the bluff where for decades, people backed up their vehicles and dumped unwanted appliances, vehicle parts and other trash.

“I love being on the river, but the people are what make this amazing,” says Steve, program manager for Missouri River Relief, a Columbia-based nonprofit group that organizes clean-ups on the Big Muddy and its largest tributaries, including the Osage River. “When you get a bunch of amazing people together working toward a common goal, it changes the world.”

Whether it’s a love of the river or a curiosity about it, Steve and the Missouri River Relief crew have given thousands of volunteers the opportunity to get their hands dirty.

In 2007 alone, more than 1,700 volunteers donated nearly 9,400 hours of labor to clean-up efforts in five states. A member of the Missouri Stream Team program, Missouri River Relief and its volunteers, working in partnership with other river groups, local communities and state and federal agencies, pulled more than 68 tons of trash from the banks of the Missouri River last year, planted 250 trees and educated nearly 1,400 students about the river’s value and importance.

According to Steve, the group’s growth and success is a reflection of changing attitudes toward the river and renewed interest in the waterway for recreation.

“When I first started doing this, my feeling was that nobody really cared about the Missouri River,” says Steve, who lives on the river in Easley in central Missouri. “The people that were on it, which was a select few, they cared, but most people thought of it as a toxic waste dump, as a dangerous thing you shouldn’t go anywhere near. I think that’s started to change. People realize this is one of the most amazing rivers in the world.”

Doyle Childers, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, stopped by in the afternoon to help with the clean-up effort after spending his morning kicking off the 2008 trout season.

It all began in 2001 when the group invited a river clean-up celebrity — Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands and Waters — to drive his trash barge up the Missouri River to Cooper’s Landing in central Missouri. Chad had gained national recognition and media attention for his organization’s efforts on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and his presence attracted many people, including Steve and “Racin’” Dave Stevens of Columbia.

“I do a lot of camping and boating at Cooper’s Landing, so I decided to help out,” recalls Dave, a mechanic and one-time motorcycle racer who now serves as the group’s fleet manager, maintaining the boats and other vehicles. “I guess you’d say I kind of worked myself into a full-time, part-time job, but it’s nice to put my job skills to work for something other than work.”

Steve is quick to credit the unfailing dedication of Dave and about 40 other “hardcore crew members” for making Missouri River Relief clean-ups both fun and successful.

Since that first clean-up, Missouri River Relief has grown from simply an idea to an organization that today employs full-time staff, plans seven to eight clean-ups a year and assists other groups with clean-ups across the region. Most recently, they’ve combined educational events with their clean-ups, bringing schoolchildren and teachers together with biologists and other river experts who explain the importance of protecting a river that provides 60 percent of the water supply for the Show-Me State.

In its eight-year existence, the group has pulled more than 1,500 tires from the river and an estimated 425 tons of trash, roughly the weight of 85 Asian elephants that, if lined up trunk to tail, would stretch for nearly a third of a mile. The key, Steve says, is getting people on the river.

“Once you get people out there, it becomes their river,” he says. “There’s so many problems with the Missouri River, and you kind of feel hopeless when you think about them. But one thing you can do is get out and pick up trash, and that’s something we can get people to do.

“After you get out there and bag up trash that’s floated from Omaha or Kansas City or wherever, you never look at the river the same way again. You never look at a plastic bottle the same way again.”

While plastic bottles, 55-gallon drums and other containers account for much of the trash that is collected, volunteers sometimes find oddities. Racin’ Dave’s favorites are messages in bottles. He’s found at least a half-dozen of them over the years, mostly containing passages of “jibberish.”

Thanks to the efforts of nearly 100 volunteers, Missouri River Relief removed almost 19 tons of trash and scrap metal from the dumpsite just upstream from the Mari-Osa Access.

The other aspect of Missouri River Relief that allows everyone to participate is that it’s not a political organization. The group doesn’t lobby, nor does it take stands on policy issues.

“There’s too much politics in the Missouri already. We believe what we do on this level, it has to do with people’s hearts,” Steve says. “We can do positive stuff without being political.”

For Dan and Ann Moeckli of Wardsville, the clean-up on the Osage River was a chance to get out on a beautiful early March day after a long winter. The couple spends a lot of time fishing and floating on the river, and they had seen the dump for years.

“I didn’t realize it was that deep with trash,” Ann says. “It’s unreal.”

The couple enjoyed the experience and the self-satisfaction that came with helping to remove the eyesore. “I’m always picking up trash anyway, so I might as well get some of the big stuff, too,” adds Dan.

It’s the thousands of volunteers like the Moecklis that allow Missouri River Relief to have an impact.

“I think what we hope to inspire in people is that, yeah, you get a bunch of people together and you can do amazing things,” Steve says, noting that locals such as the “Osage River Navy” were instrumental in making the most recent clean-up a success. “Small differences along the river add up to a big difference.”

Over the two-day effort, more than 13 tons of scrap metal was removed from the bluff, along with 5.5 tons of other trash. Though they weren’t able to remove all the garbage, the dump’s footprint was greatly reduced. For local resident and clean-up volunteer John Van Eschen, the effort means the view from his cabin atop the bluff is that much more spectacular.

“This has just been great,” he says. “It will make a huge difference for everyone who uses the river.”

Volunteer Jarad Milligan with the Missouri Department of Conservation ferries scrap metal from the dumpsite. State and federal agencies such as the Missouri departments of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with private businesses including Bass Pro Shops and MEMCO Barge Line, help sponsor Missouri River Relief.

2008 Clean-up Schedule

Lend a hand at a 2008 Missouri River Relief clean-up. Sign up online at www.riverrelief.org or call 573-443-0292.

April 26 — Hartsburg

June 7 — Sioux City, Iowa

June 14 — Missouri River Clean-up and River Festival, Washington, Mo.

Sept. 13 — Confluence Clean-up, Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area, St. Louis

Oct. 4 — Kansas City Area Clean-up, La Benite Park, Sugar Creek

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