Project AWARE river cleanup returns to its roots

Volunteers gather on the banks of the upper Cedar River during the 2017 Project AWARE
March 29, 2018 -- During a drizzly first week of June, 15 years ago, three dozen volunteers embarked on a first-of-its-kind river cleanup and outdoor education adventure. These brave volunteers set out to pick up trash from the Maquoketa River, and, in doing so, they sparked a river cleanup movement that transformed a humble idea into a nationally recognized leader in environmental education and stewardship efforts. It is known today as Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition).

Since Project AWARE began in 2003, more than 4,500 volunteers from around the world have cleaned up 1,138 river miles in Iowa by removing more than 405 tons of trash, (77 percent of which has been recycled).

In the 16th year of Project AWARE, scheduled for July 8-13, 2018, the annual event will return to the Maquoketa River. This time it will bring several hundred volunteers to east central Iowa, where they will work as aquatic garbage collectors – cleaning up, learning about and exploring 63 river miles between Manchester and Canton in Delaware, Jones and Jackson counties. Although the full expedition is six days, volunteers may register to help for as little or as long as they like during the event. Canoes will be provided.

The State Hygienic Laboratory has been a Project AWARE sponsor since 2005.

“Project AWARE’s return to the Maquoketa River 15 years after the very first event is a big deal,” said Doug Hawker, Manchester native and lead garbage man on the first Project AWARE. “Experiencing this wonderful event, whether through active participation or even by just observing the hundreds of volunteers pulling trash out of the river, tends to instill a sense of environmental stewardship into a person that will last a lifetime.”

During Project AWARE, volunteers paddle canoes searching for trash by day, camp in local campgrounds and communities by night, and attend educational programs scheduled throughout the week. It not only provides an opportunity for Maquoketa River residents to showcase their communities, but it also offers an opportunity for residents and visitors to connect with the river and enrich their sense of place.

"I graduated from Manchester High School in 1960, so I have considered the Maquoketa River my home river,” says 12-year Project AWARE veteran Richard Worm. “While staying in Hopkinton, I look forward to having the opportunity to help interpret the Delaware County Historical Society's Milo #7 country school house, the school I attended from 1st through 4th grade 70 years ago."

Sarah Helle, the Hopkinton city clerk also looks forward to hosting the event. “We are very excited to have Project AWARE volunteers not only clean up the river, but also spend a night in our town. We hope to bring a bit of historic insight, show the destination components of our area and treat those working hard to a great evening in Hopkinton.”

Iowa Project AWARE has experienced tremendous growth and successfully adapted to change throughout its history; the 2018 event will be no exception. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which has coordinated the event since its inception, is partnering with the State Hygienic Laboratory at The University of Iowa and the all-volunteer Iowa nonprofit N-Compass, Inc. to transition Project AWARE from a state-organized to nonprofit event.

"We're expecting this cleanup will be a great thing for the Maquoketa River and the people who love it," said Nate Hoogeveen, river programs coordinator for the Iowa DNR.

For more information on this event and to download the registration materials, please visit