Skunk River Navy makes impact

Jared Raney

During the past 15 years, the self-named “Skunk River Navy” has removed an estimated 136,000 pounds — or about 68 tons — of trash from local rivers, including the Skunk River.

The program was started by Jim Colbert, associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology.

“[The program] comes from a desire to have our … students do something that connects them to the local community,” Colbert said.

Colbert, an avid fisherman, came up with the idea when on the river. One day his fishing boat drifted past a cast iron bathtub sitting in the middle of the water.

“I don’t like trash in my rivers,” Colbert said. “In the end, the trash is not really the most important result. The most important result of all this is raising the awareness … of the beauty, the value and the issues our rivers face.”

The cleanup is performed annually by the Skunk River Navy, on local creeks and rivers such as Skunk River and Squaw Creek.

“The most interesting thing that happened this year was we finally finished a part of the river,” Colbert said.

The part of the river that Colbert was referring to is the branch of Squaw Creek from Duff Avenue to Southeast 15th Street. According to Colbert the group has worked on that stretch of water at least five separate years, but this year they were finally able to finish it, thanks to an unexpected partner — the drought.

This year Colbert compares their group less to the U.S. Navy and more to the U.S. Marines, as theirs was a “boat-less Navy” because of the drought.

The nearly-dry river beds made some of the work more difficult for the group, forcing them to carry their trash on Swiss Army cots to a dumpster, at times nearly 2 miles away. They were also able to get “to the bottom of the pile, so to speak,” Colbert said.

The only thing he said the group was not able to get were the cars stuck in the riverbank in an old, largely failed attempt to stop erosion. Despite this, Colbert is happy with the progress the group made this year.

“We are making a difference, in terms of diminishing the amount of trash that’s in these local streams,” Colbert said.

Most of the students involved are a part of the Introduction to Biology class, Bio 110, though all students were welcome and encouraged to join.

Catherine Steinfadt, sophomore in biology, has been a part of the Skunk River Navy the past two years.

“It’s definitely a good experience,” Steinfadt said. “I met a lot of people [on] both trips.”

Steinfadt said she was surprised how fun picking up trash could be.

“We found a lot of stuff we called ‘trophy trash,’” Steinfadt said.

The so-called trophy trash included washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, couches and TVs, all within the confines of the river. 

This year about 200 volunteers helped to drag out 10,320 pounds of trash from Squaw Creek and Skunk River.

“I would encourage anyone to do it,” said Weston Spedding first-time participant and junior in pre-business. “[I] had a lot of fun just trying to dig up stuff. … Just make sure you bring a crappy pair of shoes.”

Though happy with their success, Colbert also has bigger concerns.

“Trash is definitely not the biggest problem,” Colbert said. “The biggest issues that face these rivers are really … sediment and dramatic fluctuations in flow.”

Colbert said these problems are a direct result of the human influences on land. Human activity have affected the overall water flow through the land, creating a highly unstable environment, which can result in floods and, alternately, severe droughts.

“Part of my goal is to raise awareness,” Colbert said. “[If] people are aware there’s a problem, there’s a greater likelihood something will be done to fix the problem.”