chattahoochee river

The Chattahoochee River at Jones Bridge, a few miles north of Atlanta. (Photo: Russell McLendon/MNN)

The first kayaks slid into view around noon, passing an outcrop full of fishermen as they rounded one last bend in the glinting Chattahoochee River. Nearing their destination — Garrard Landing, part of metro Atlanta's Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area — their cargo became visible, too: mostly old bottles and cans, but also novelties like a yellow playground slide, a framed painting of red blobs and a blue beach ball.

"I guess you could say I had a ball on the river today," lead kayaker Clint Miller announced as he carried the silty orb ashore, drawing groans.

Similar scenes unfolded dozens of times last Saturday along a 48-mile stretch of the river, thanks to a massive cleanup project called "Sweep the Hooch." Now in its third year, the event rallied a record 553 volunteers for the one-day purge, which yielded 3.7 tons of trash from eight paddling segments, five wading sites and eight riverside trails. Most of the debris was too muddy, moldy or waterlogged to avoid the landfill, but organizers say they did manage to recycle about 16 percent of this year's "harvest."

Sweep the Hooch is run by two conservation groups — Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Trout Unlimited — along with the National Park Service, which oversees the river's 15-site national recreation area. It's held in April partly because of the weather, but also because the month has become a sort of environmental holiday season in recent decades. It began with the original Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and soon expanded to include spinoff celebrations like Earth Month and National Park Week.

April's environmental tint has also bred cynicism, though, with critics often dismissing Earth Day and Month as empty gestures usurped by greenwashers. But while that does happen every year, most holidays undergo commercialization over time — and it could even be seen as a sign of their mainstream success. And much like religious holidays in the U.S., Earth Day is now almost two parallel traditions: one for pitching "eco-friendly" shampoo or "sustainable" spa getaways, and one for things like Sweep the Hooch.

Sweep the Hooch is still relatively new, but it's part of a broad river-rehab trend that's been gaining steam for two decades. The environmental group American Rivers launched its National River Cleanup program in 1991, allowing local organizers to register their cleanups in exchange for free trash bags, help with media coverage, volunteer promotion and technical support. More than 1.1 million volunteers have joined thousands of cleanups since then, the group says, covering some 244,500 river miles and removing at least 16.5 million pounds of debris. Last year was its most productive yet, with 92,500 volunteers netting 3.5 million pounds of trash along nearly 40,000 miles of waterways.

Paddler helps with cleanup on Chattachoochee

A canoer hauls his harvest for Sweep the Hooch 2013. (Photo: Eric Voss/Chattahoochee Riverkeeper)

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has also enjoyed rising interest in riparian repairs lately. The group will mark its 20th anniversary in 2014, and along with partners like Trout Unlimited, it has long held targeted cleanups of river segments. But according to TU conservation chairman Kevin McGrath, turnout for Sweep the Hooch — which covers the river's entire 48-mile national recreation area — has grown steadily in each of its three years.

"We've had river-section cleanups before, but we had never cleaned the entire park in one day [until 2011]," he says. "We had about 400 volunteers the first year, and close to 500 last year, but not over 500. This year, I think it's just becoming more well-known."

Even such ambitious river cleanups are still hyperlocal in the context of Earth Day or Earth Month, though. Naming the holidays after Earth can help highlight the interconnectedness of ecological issues, especially in the age of global warming; the official theme of Earth Day 2013 is "The Face of Climate Change." But despite the scale and urgency of climate change, it's also worth noting that Earth Day began as a reaction to lots of local problems, like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill or the infamous Cuyahoga River fire. Cleaning one river may not be as broadly important as fighting climate change, but it's still important — and according to several Sweep the Hooch volunteers, river cleanups are as much about fostering a general love for nature as they are about picking up litter.

"It's a good way to spend time outdoors and spend time with family," says kayaker Tom Wright, whose adult son joined him for Sweep the Hooch this year. "And, you know, I fish this water, so it's nice to spend a little time giving back and keeping it nice."

"We have a lot of folks who do it for the fellowship, as a way of making friends," adds Miller, who led about a dozen kayakers on one of the event's eight paddle segments. "And it is rewarding. A guy who was out fishing saw us just now and thanked us."

trash picked up from Chattahoochee

River debris is piled up by a kayak at Garrard Landing on April 13. (Photo: Russell McLendon/MNN)

The Chattahoochee supplies about 70 percent of metro Atlanta's drinking water, but its fishing culture is also a major reason it commands regional admiration, McGrath says. "The Chattahoochee is listed by Trout Unlimited as one of the 100 best trout streams in the country. It has a large, healthy and self-reproducing brown trout population," he says. "It's naturally a very clean river, and it gets this nice, consistent cold water because of releases upstream from Buford Dam. It's unusual because it's such a high-quality fishery and it sits in the back yard of this major metropolitan area."

Although McGrath agrees Earth Month is a good time for environmental volunteering, he argues that a successful cleanup depends less on the calendar than on a community's year-round respect for its river. "[Sweep the Hooch] is done in conjunction with National Park Week, which is centered around Earth Day, so it is timely," he says. "But there are many people in the Atlanta area who appreciate the benefits of a clean river. It has an economic impact on the city. If we had this event in the summer or fall, it would draw the same numbers. People here are very, very enthusiastic about this river."

Of course, that enthusiasm doesn't extend to all of metro Atlanta's 5.4 million residents, as evidenced by the medley of trash pulled from the river. Cans, bottles and plastic bags are typically among the most common items, but Miller also marvels at the "amazing" number of tennis and golf balls, a sentiment echoed by many of this year's kayakers. On top of the oddities hauled into Garrard Landing, the 2013 harvest included fire extinguishers, a rusty boxspring, a full one-gallon gas tank and a 20-horsepower trawling motor. Past cleanups have found tricycles, cars, crime-scene tape, washing machines, refrigerators and — in a metaphor almost too fitting to believe — a kitchen sink.

Asked how a handful of people in kayaks can get such unwieldy items out of the water, McGrath offers good advice for environmental action in general, no matter the scale or occasion. "Teamwork," he says. "We just break it into pieces, lift it out bit by bit."

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