River Clean-ups: An IIHR Service Tradition

A volunteer rolls a tire out of the Iowa River

Originally Posted on: July 29th, 2015

by Shianne Gruss

If there were an IIHR award for the most trash piled into a canoe, Dan Ceynar would be swimming in medals.

Ceynar, an Iowa Flood Center project engineer, recently celebrated his 10th year participating in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition), which took place July 11–16 on the Wapsipinicon River. Over the years, many IIHR faculty, staff, and students have joined in to help clean up rivers across the state. IIHR and the IFC also both co-sponsor the event.

Ceynar and his son, Ryan, 14, with just a few of the tires pulled from the Wapsipinicon.

Ceynar and his son, Ryan, 14, with just a few of the tires pulled from the Wapsipinicon.

This year, 433 volunteers—as many as 277 per day—canoed a total of 63 miles from Independence to Olin. “It’s become so much bigger,” says Ceynar. Although not a participant of the very first Project AWARE, he reports it comprised about 90 people, who were able to carry the trash home in their cars.

Those days are long gone. Today, staff and volunteers have become a “mobile army,” as Ceynar calls it. As the boats come up the ramp loaded with trash, volunteers are waiting to sort, clean, and deposit the items into different roll-off containers—to be either recycled or thrown away.

“It’s feast or famine,” he adds. “You’re waiting for boats to come in, and sometimes they all come in at once. I prefer to be on the water.”

Eat, Sleep, Paddle

Several hundred volunteers would likely agree with him. On any given day, upwards of 100 canoes can be seen jostling down the river.

“I had described it when my sons were young as a kind of RAGBRAI on water, but with a service aspect,” says IIHR’s Connie Mutel, who has participated in Project AWARE twice. This year, her husband Robert Mutel took their two grandsons for a one-day float. Connie says Robert was surprised by how much he enjoyed it. “This is just one of a growing number of IIHR outreach activities,” she notes.

Ryan Clark, a geologist with the Iowa Geological Survey, has been on staff during Project AWARE for the past three years. He says it feels like “a big family reunion” when participants come together. “It’s so much fun to be around that many people who enjoy the outdoor world so much that they are willing to fight heat, bugs, scratches and scrapes, and stubborn trash to make that particular stretch of river a better place.”

When not on the water, the volunteers are invited to camp and participate in educational programs, such as Canoe Skills and Safety, The Art of Slacklining, and Freshwater Mussels of Wapsipinicon. “The days just start to run together when you’re not on anybody’s clock except the river’s,” says Ceynar. “I like that. You get up, paddle, eat, sleep, and paddle again.”

Heavy Metal

And when the paddling gets tough … some volunteers are known to take heavy items on board to make it even tougher.

“Everybody has their specialty,” explains Ceynar. “We’ve kind of coined names for them.” These include the Excavators, Beachcombers, and Log Jammers. Whether you like collecting “trophy trash” (the big stuff) or cans and bottles, everyone—even the newbies—wants a tire. “It’s like your ticket to ride,” jokes Ceynar.

Ryan Clark, IGS geologist, sorts scrap metal at Project AWARE 2015.

Ryan Clark, IGS geologist, sorts scrap metal at Project AWARE 2015.

Volunteers collected 30.1 tons of trash this year, nearly half of which was scrap metal. Only 2.75 tons were thrown away, making a 91 percent recycle rate.

“It was basically a heavy metal year,” says Ceynar. Metal items pulled from the water included water heaters, old bed springs, and even a 20-foot set of steel steps — probably once attached to someone’s dock. “It was estimated to weigh about 1,600 pounds and had to lay across three canoes.”

Ceynar says they also came across a major tire dump, where several hundred tires were removed (the week’s total was 677). “That wasn’t even all of them,” he adds. “We just ran out of canoes.” Other common items are aluminum cans, agricultural equipment, and even entire boats.

In many cases, Ceynar says the trash has been dumped in. “That’s the sad part. I guess the idea is that the river is like a toilet, and they flush it away. But you drink that. It matters to life.”

Creating a Legacy

Since Project AWARE’s inception, youth participation has increased significantly. To accommodate this change, coordinators have made a point to include more educational programs that appeal to kids, says Lynette Seigley, Project AWARE coordinator at the Iowa DNR.

Sara Steussy (front middle), a former research support coordinator at the Iowa Flood Center, with many IIHR students at the 2013 Project AWARE on the Des Moines River.

“I still maintain that this type of change comes one kid at a time,” says Ceynar. “Because when you get old you kind of get set in your ways. Also, how can kids be expected to care about something they don’t know anything about?”

Connie also agrees—especially now that she is a grandmother—that kids need to be involved in service projects. “I think the more experiences they have in doing things for the natural world or for humans, the better global citizens they will be in general, and the happier, too.”

To learn more about Project AWARE, visit iowadnr.gov.

IIHR and the IFC also help to sponsor the Iowa River Clean-up and the Lower Wapsipinicon River Clean-up.