Our Bay: 'Spring cleaning' for the Chesapeake Bay

Project Clean Stream enlists army of volunteers

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer Published 03/28/09

Down a steep ravine in a rural part of Millersville are large piles old tires, broken toys, rusted scrap metal.

Volunteers clean trash from a ravine in the Severn River watershed during Project Clean Stream in 2008.

There's trash - lots and lots and lots of trash.

Bob Whitcomb's mission is to empower a small army of volunteers to rid the area of the trash (or at least most of it) during a cleanup blitz next Saturday.

"It won't be clean enough to eat off of … but there will be a lot less polluting the creek," said Whitcomb, a volunteer with the Severn River Association and the Severn Riverkeeper Program.

The creek in this case is Indian Creek, a stream that meanders through the woods and eventually empties into the Severn River.

The trashy ravine in Millersville is one of dozens of sites for the annual Project Clean Stream, a major effort aimed at cleaning up trash and litter in the streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay. It's organized by the nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay with the help of scores of local environmental, civic and Scouting groups.

In 2008, more than 3,000 volunteers at 116 sites removed more than 186,500 pounds of trash, according to the alliance.

Victoria Stinson, who is the alliance's coordinator for Project Clean Stream, aims to top those numbers for 2009. Already, she has 140 cleanup sites.

In addition to the Baltimore-based Project Clean Stream, next weekend also features a Patuxent River cleanup with more than 20 sites stretching all along the river.

And the 21st annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, with 365 sites in the Washington area, is planned for the same day, too.

That's a lot of trash.

While headlines and government reports are filled with news about the Chesapeake Bay's nutrient and sediment pollution, trash is not to be overlooked. Trash may not contribute to harmful algae blooms and fish kills, but it's unsightly and nasty and no good for people or wildlife.

Trash also is easy to see and is a straightforward problem to attack. And, unfortunately, there's no shortage of it.

Lauren Webster, restoration coordinator for the Patuxent Riverkeeper, said sometimes the sites cleaned up on the river end up filled with trash again a year or two later. Some of it is due to careless littering, some due to dumping.

But while there are disappointments, there also are some successes. Webster cited a spot at Governor's Bridge Road that was cleaned with the help of a throng of volunteers two years ago. This year, she's sending back just a couple of people because not much trash has built up, she said.

Webster said Patuxent volunteers have found "tons and tons of tires," shopping carts, televisions, couches, fishing gear, bottles and candy wrappers. Interestingly, she said they never find wrappers from healthy food like granola bars or juice - just junk food wrappers.

"You name it, we've seen it," she said.

Whitcomb and his volunteers also said they have seen it all: tires, car parts, appliances, buckets, mattresses, air-conditioning units, toys and even sports trophies. In some cases, they've had to arrange to bring in heavy construction equipment to remove stubborn, heavy pieces of trash.

The stream cleanups attract scores of volunteers and organizers suggested a variety of reasons.

Whitcomb, who has been organizing the Severn cleanups for four years, said he thinks people are ready and willing to help the bay, but may not know how. Project Clean Stream is an easy way to get involved and to see the difference being made.

"I don't think it's about the trash," Whitcomb said. "I think there's a huge number of people who want to do something and they're waiting to be called … It's clearly an environmental plus to do this and it doesn't take any particular skill. Anyone can do it."

Webster said she thinks maybe the change of seasons has something to do with it - people are ready to shake off the winter doldrums and get outside and get dirty doing a good deed.

"This is like, 'Let's jump into spring,' " Webster said. "We're all tired of being stuck in the office doing paperwork."

Stinson, of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, also sees the event as a rite of spring.

"It kicks off the spring season," she said. "It's like spring cleaning, so to speak."

(Revised March 2009)