Stream Clean Up Is a Great Community Project

healthy creek after stream clean up

Last Updated: December 11, 2022

Stream clean up can feel incredibly rewarding to a community. Volunteers and others who learn about the clean up through social media or television will see and appreciate the sheer volume of junk that you're likely to find in the creek itself and also along its banks, especially the first time you organize an event or campaign.

The beauty of these projects is that if they are done on an annual or semi-annual basis, there will be a tendency to find less and less trash to be collected.

Partly that's because with the first event, you may encounter the trash build-up from several years, particularly along the banks. But your first annual clean-up day also creates an important statement to the community. 

People get the idea that someone cares about the river, lake, or stream. Maybe they will reconsider throwing dirty diapers, snack wrappers, and paper plates into or next to the creek. Perhaps someone might connect the dots and figure out that what they throw down the storm sewer finds its way into the stream.

The benefits of working toward clean water go well beyond a vague do-gooder feeling. The accumulated volume of trash in a stream, or items along the banks that may be swept away during a storm, contributes to flooding. Recently I saw a situation in which a particularly large trash build-up blocked the stormwater flow and led to a localized flash flood affecting one property owner. 

Because clean water is the law of the land in the U.S., and has been since 1972, your community is obligated to do some degree of cleaning streams of any size before sending them on downstream. Beyond legal obligations, you may want to stress to your community that hazardous waste clean up is a costly proposition.

If there's a bottle of insecticide, for instance, that's thrown in the storm sewer inlet and winds up in your creek, there's some serious pollution that your community may have to pay to clean up before the stream can empty into a larger body of water.

The specifics vary from situation to situation, but you can bet that someone somewhere is paying for neutralizing the effects of the most environmentally offensive trash.

Besides, a clean stream is just plain nice to look at. Below, we give you a form so you can give an overview of your stream clean up and how you made it a success, or what you learned that would make you do it differently next time. Stories about clean ups of rivers or lakes also are welcome and relevant.

If we accept your story (and we will, if you write something that others can understand), you will have a stand-along web page that you can use in publicizing future clean ups or other activities. You don't need to write anything elaborate, but just tell our website visitors what you did and how it worked.

Seven Tips for a Better Stream Clean-Up

1. Prepare people for the day. Explain to your volunteers that they will need boots or hip waders if you plan to have everyone in the stream. Be frank about any dangers and inconveniences volunteers will face, and if you see a role for people who want to stay on the banks, say that too. We recommend holding your clean up rain or shine, but of course hurricanes or other major storms would be exceptions. When registering volunteers, it is a good idea to collect cell phone numbers so you can text if you need to cancel, alter the start time, or advise of changing conditions.

2. Have water, appropriate refreshments, sunscreen, and a first aid kit available.  Know where there are restrooms. Post information about all of this near your registration table.

3. If you know the area to be a haven for poison ivy or some other poisonous plant, be sure to point it out to participants. Better yet, advise your volunteers in advance; some will want to cover themselves a little more as protection. I know of one neighborhood organization that did not think to do this, and several people with severe poison ivy reactions were irate. They lost that little contingent of people as future volunteers.

4. Remember to document your effort with photos and video. If there is large rubbish in the stream, grab the camera, and certainly at the end of the day show the quantity. Post it on Facebook, Twitter, and other media accounts; we advise that you encourage several people to do so.

5. Mind your manners and make sure everyone is thanked; notice who's preparing to leave and acknowledge their effort.

6. As noted above, it is a good practice to encourage people to sign up in advance to participate in the day. That will help you plan for the correct amount of refreshments and tools.  Remember that you will need to have each volunteer sign a waiver of legal liability; taking care of that in advance is another reason for a pre-registration. Individuals and small non-profits certainly do not want to have to defend a lawsuit if someone is cut or exposed to chemicals.  If you do not have ready access to a waiver form already and cannot afford an attorney, look online for a suitable form, which will be better than nothing. 

7. If you think your participants would be interested, tie your efforts to watershed planning or broader community revitalization efforts. This element tends to work nicely in areas where you have some millennials or highly educated folks among your volunteers.

Want to Tell Us About an Outstanding River Clean Up?

Can you tell us about a stream or river clean up event or campaign? Tell us where it is, why it's successful or where it struggles, and what you think would be the take-away advice that this example contributes.

See What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other visitors and editors.

Clean Your Streams Day 21 
Visitor Story: In September 2017, Partners for Clean Streams hosted the 21st Annual Clean Your Streams Day in Northwest Ohio. This program is a concentrated …

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