Photo: Volunteers from a previous Renew Our Rivers cleanup pose with the trash and debris they collected from the Coosa. (Courtesy of Greater Gadsden Area Tourism)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
The week of September 26 to October 1 marked the Coosa River/Neely Henry Lake leg of the statewide cleanup known as Renew Our Rivers.
“Renew Our Rivers — and I take great pride in all of them, but — that is a program that started here that has spread not only throughout the state of Alabama but other areas in the Southeast,” said Keep Etowah Beautiful Director Lisa Dover.
Renew Our Rivers is an Alabama Power sponsored, volunteer-based program in which participants remove litter from the area’s waterways, shorelines and land. Gadsden and Etowah County have participated in Renew Our Rivers for about 22 years.
While the program has been ongoing for over two decades, the yearly mass cleanup paused during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2022 cleanup was the first since 2019.
“Everybody this year renewed my faith in a lot of people and a lot of things,” Dover said.
Dover said 272 volunteers turned out for this year’s cleanup, collecting a total of 1.58 tons of trash and debris.
Participants worked along the shorelines of the Coosa, in the river itself and further inland. Litter from dry land can wind up in the river, Dover pointed out, and vice versa.
“I had people out actually in boats picking up,” she said. “I had groups working the shoreline areas of the river. My saying is — and we started this years ago — litter will affect the land and the river system, because if you don’t get it off the land it can wind up in the river. And then when you have floods and it raises the water, it can put that litter right back on the shorelines again.”
A driving force of the project is the Influence Program, a partnership with Keep Etowah Beautiful in which inmates of the Etowah County Detention Center volunteer to remove litter and debris from local roadways.
“Supervised by a detention deputy, inmates daily walk the roadways of Etowah County picking up litter and other debris,” said the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office website. “Inmates selected for the Influence Program are nonviolent offenders who volunteer for the job. After a background check, they are approved by jail administration.”
These volunteers also join mass cleanups like river cleanups.
“The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office is working to clean up the county by joining the efforts of Renew Our Rivers,” the website said. “More than 35 inmates from the Substance Abuse Prevention Program spend time each [year] picking up trash and removing debris from the river banks of the Coosa River.”
Keep Etowah Beautiful facilitates other land and clean-water initiatives, including its litter hotline at 256-549-0900, which local motorists and pedestrians can call to report someone throwing litter out of a vehicle.
Renew Our Rivers started in Etowah County as “Renew Our Coosa,” created by Alabama Power employee Gene Phifer.
“This is where it all started at 22 years ago, when he (Phifer) was at the steam plant and saw trash going down behind the river and wanted to do something to make a difference in this community,” Dover said. “What was so different about Renew Our Coosa [from] river cleanups in the past [was] this time, we brought community partners in. They asked us to join and to participate, and then it just went off from there.”
Despite his retirement from Alabama Power, Phifer and his family are still “very much involved” in the cleanup. Dover said that Phifer is a mentor to her and encouraged her to do the work she does now.
“The community partners (and) the volunteers, once again, they do so much to make a difference in the community,” Dover said. “We’re only as good as our people are, and our people are wonderful.”
Public partners of Keep Etowah Beautiful include the cities of Gadsden, Rainbow City, Glencoe, Southside, Hokes Bluff, the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office, the Etowah County Commission, Etowah County Engineer Department, Gadsden-Etowah Emergency Management Association and the Alabama Department of Transportation.
Private-sector partners include Alabama Power, Gadsden Water Works, Campers Unlimited, Buffalo Rock, AT&T, Buck’s Island, the Gadsden Beautification Board, the Neely Henry Lake Association, WCKA Radio and Turtle Water.
“To be honest with you, as much as this turned out to be bigger than I anticipated, I am really excited about next year,” Dover said. “Hopefully we are going to be in a good place next year and can kind of bring more people in and get this out a little bit earlier for everybody to participate.”
Dover has been working at KEB for 28 years.
“This is an ongoing program that I encourage everybody, even when we’re not having these events, if you’re out and about that you do it year-round,” Dover said.
Although its litter-busting work goes on year-round, the three main events hosted each year by KEB include a land-focused cleanup called the Great American Cleanup, an educational program for fourth graders called the Water Festival and Renew Our Rivers.
“This Water Festival is actually set up for the fourth-grade teachers and their students,” Dover said. “We bring them in to Gadsden State, and then we’d have high schoolers come in and be our presenters.”
Keep Etowah Beautiful hosts other school-centered programs including the Message in the Bottle poster contest and its Clean Campus initiative. Dover noted that the organization has also participated in local disaster relief efforts, often working with Gadsden/Etowah County EMA.
“One year when we had a tornado — and it’s been several years ago — and it came across the county and it hit the Sardis area real hard,” she said. “We were actually about to start Renew Our Rivers, but because we had neighbors in need up there, we took the workers that would have been out on the river and took and worked in that area.”
KEB helped first responders clear local waterways after Southside was struck by a tornado in 2018.
“I think the thing about Keep Etowah Beautiful that I love is that we bring so many different people in to work together, and everybody focuses on trying to do what’s best for their community and do the right thing,” Dover said.