Keep our rivers clean

Mischa Olson

There’s a Jamaican proverb that says, “If you saw what the river carried, you would never drink the water.”

The ISU Skunk River Navy, a group of volunteers that cleans and monitors the Skunk River, would agree. Between 1998 and 2008, the group removed more than 57 tons of trash from the river. Each fall this group, led by Jim Colbert, associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology, spends three or four Saturdays on the river.

Having been a member of the SRN since my freshman biology class with Colbert, I remember my amazement at seeing for the first time the canoes loaded full of tires, scrap metal, pop bottles and even a refrigerator. How does all that stuff end up in the river? Well, we put it there.

The SRN also has an educational aspect, giving biology students the opportunity to identify organisms living in our local river. A volunteer water quality monitoring program, IOWATER, uses the pollution tolerance of different organisms to garner information about the water quality. In the Skunk River, I only found aquatic life that has a high tolerance for pollution. The contaminants have killed everything else off.

Iowa waters face another major problem, in addition to garbage: high levels of sediment and nutrients, such as nitrate and phosphate. Although Iowa’s agriculture industry is a large contributor to these problems, urban centers are also heavily involved in trash accumulation and poor water quality.

So why does this matter to you? Iowa’s rivers are an essential part of our lives, whether you realize it or not. They provide the water you drink and use on a daily basis. They provide a transportation system for people, goods, organisms and nutrients to many different areas. They provide electricity through hydroelectric plants. They provide a habitat for many species of plants and animals. They provide a drainage system for rainwater. And they provide hours of fun through boating, swimming, fishing and many other recreational activities.

The Iowa River Revival is an organization “formed to celebrate the numerous benefits of rivers and to urge improving them for all Iowans.” This group has taken action, deciding that what has been done so far to protect Iowa’s waterways is not enough. They are passionate advocates for efforts to improve policies and practices in land use and watershed management. They also promote local partnerships to connect recreational trails with waterways, creating “water trail” with improved portages and signage.

The Iowa River Revival is a great first step, but Iowa needs more advocates for clean, natural rivers. Don’t you want to be able to go fly fishing years from now and not catch your hook on a tire? Don’t you want fish to continue living in the river? Don’t you want to be able to go kayaking and not run into a dam of beer cans caught against a log? Don’t you want to go swimming and not climb out feeling slimy? Don’t you want to be able to trust the water you are drinking? Then realize you need to take a stand and make a difference.

The average American produces 4.4 pounds of garbage a day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In your life, you will produce at least the equivalent of the 57 tons of trash the SRN has hauled out of the river. This trash is everywhere, not just in our rivers. Make sure that bottle you causally toss on your walk to class actually makes it into the garbage can, else it might end up in one of the Navy’s canoes next year. Or better yet, recycle the bottle and get the 5 cents back at Hy-Vee. See a napkin blowing on the ground? Pick it up and throw it away. If we all help out, even just in small ways, we can go a long way toward helping keep Iowa beautiful.

And remember, your voice will count in larger ways too. The more voices that advocate the need to care for our waterways, the sooner we can be on the way to protecting Iowa’s miles of river — and as the Jamaican proverb says, all that they carry.