By Mary Elizabeth Dial, Staff Correspondent
Drivers on Albert Rains Boulevard in Gadsden may have seen a shocking sight in the large parking lot next to Convention Hall: a massive pile of trash that had been pulled from the Coosa River as part of the Renew Our Rivers project. Originally called Renew the Coosa, the annual cleanup began 17 years ago and has undergone more than just a change of name.
Gene Phifer, who was instrumental in starting the program in 2000, was quick to explain that the project would never have gotten started without a community-wide effort.
“I had a lot of help,” said Phifer. Along with of Alabama Power, the Keep Etowah Beautiful initiative, the Gadsden/Etowah Chamber and “as many people and as many diverse groups” as Phifer could rally, Renew the Coosa started cleaning up the river that flows through northeast Alabama and is a significant part of Gadsden’s landscape.
By 2002, Renew the Coosa had become Renew Our Rivers as other areas in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida began participating.
“The cleanup grew year by year,” Phifer remembered. The program, which attracted 500 volunteers in 2000, has grown to include 70,000 volunteers over the past 17 years. Over that time, 14,500,000 pounds of debris has been hauled out of water systems. Renew Our Rivers shows no sign of slowing down; over 30 cleanups occurred this year in addition to the Coosa River site.
Phifer, who worked for Alabama Power when Renew Our Rivers was created but has since retired, has remained with the project and is proud of how it has grown.
“I don’t know if it’s the biggest cleanup in the United States, but if it’s not it’s on up there,” Phifer said. The progress he has seen in 17 years of cleaning up the Coosa and other water systems has surprised and inspired him. Compared to the first cleanup project, from which debris filled the parking lot of the Gadsden amphitheater, this year’s efforts have seen a decrease in debris pulled from the Coosa but not in the response from the community. Phifer credits this response to the place Renew Our Rivers has earned for itself as a part of the community’s culture.
A large part of the project’s importance is the education it provides to children as well as adults.
“If you can talk and stress the importance of protecting the environment… it really helps because as [children] grow up they take that attitude and they spread it,” Phifer explained. The Message in a Bottle program grew out of this goal to educate when a bottle was found floating in the Coosa River with a 19-year-old note. Renew Our Rivers organizers began using that message in a bottle to demonstrate the importance of local water systems, and the children’s program has since resulted in an increased interest in the health of lakes and rivers.
“What would this whole area be without the [river system]?” Phifer asked.
When driving past the pile of debris pulled from the river, which contains multiple shopping carts and tires as well as a whole boat, it is easy to see why environmentalists and community leaders keep Renew Our Rivers alive and active, but why do community volunteers keep coming back?
According to Phifer, the answer is simple.
“It’s important for [volunteers] to have a good time… It’s fun! It’s work, but it’s a lot of fun too.”
By improving the health of the local environment and encouraging unity at the same time, Renew Our Rivers has hit on the perfect formula for success, and organizers intend to keep the program going as long as it is needed.