A 27-year-old man with a passion for preserving rivers unwittingly set into motion events that resulted in the removal of hundreds of tons of garbage from Iowa waterways.
It was 2002. Chad Pregracke from East Moline, Illinois, was giving a speech to volunteers of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. At the age of 23, Pregracke formed Living Lands & Waters. He describes it as "the only industrial-strength river cleanup organization" in the world that promotes preservation, restoration and environmental awareness.
"His story had me on the edge of my seat the entire time," Brian Soenen of IDNR recalled in 2008. "I just kept thinking, 'Iowa has 72,000 miles of streams and rivers. We could do that!'"
And he has. Inspired by Pregracke's call to action, Soenen led the development of Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition). In 2003, IDNR teamed with Keepers of the Land (an IDNR volunteer program) for the first AWARE event on the Maquoketa River. Since then, hundreds of tons of scrap metal and discarded appliances and thousands of tires have been hauled out of Iowa rivers, from the Nishnabotna in western Iowa to northeastern Iowa's Turkey River and many waterways in between.
Beginning on July 7, the week-long adventure celebrated its tenth anniversary by cleaning up a 93-mile stretch of the Iowa River.
"Low water was definitely the theme [for this year]," Soenen said. "We also had a lot more tires. Last year, we had 611 tires; this year [we had] 1,371. Other than that, it was basically the same - dedicated Iowans volunteering their time to improve Iowa's rivers."
A sponsor since 2005, the Hygienic Lab was represented by veteran AWARE volunteers Lynn Aldridge, chemist, and limnologists Mike Birmingham, Todd Hubbard, Mark Johnston, Travis Morarend and Seth Zimmermann.
In past years, crews maneuvered through high river levels due to flooding. This year, the low river level brought other challenges.
"There was generally just enough depth to float an empty canoe, but once they filled their canoes with trash, the volunteers spent a lot of time dragging their boats through the shallows. In some areas, they walked further than they paddled," Birmingham said.
"As usual for me, the best part was seeing all the trash that was brought in, despite the low water."
This year alone, that trash amounted to more than 60 tons, 86 percent of which was recycled. More than 21 tons of scrap metal was collected, part of which will likely have a new life as an AWARE sculpture created by artist David Williamson.
Why do volunteers return to this hot, dirty, strenuous work year after year? Some do it to instill a sense of stewardship in their children who work alongside them as part of the crew. Others do so to help recapture the natural habitats that have been infringed upon by human garbage.
"We have had more volunteers participating the last few years compared to the first two or three AWAREs," Birmingham said. "One of the most noticeable changes for me is seeing some of the younger volunteers grow up. Seems like just a couple years ago, they were 10 [years old] and now they are in college.
"What brings me back is the dedication/commitment shown by the volunteers. They spend their vacation cleaning a river. I'm just happy to assist."