Health care providers abide by a Hippocratic Oath in their practice. The essence of that oath: “First, do no harm.” In other words, don’t rush so quickly into the treatment of a patient that you make a mistake… be sure you’re doing the right thing. Likewise, a river clean-up project should be conducted with care, so that the best of intentions do not yield harmful, unintended consequences.
First, be safe. Be careful of your footing. Don’t over extend yourself. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. A river—any river—can have surprising currents, submerged hazards, inescapably slick shorelines, and other hazards. Know your limitations, and err on the side of caution. Anything that seems a bit too heavy—or just out of reach—can wait to be recovered another way, another day. The Minnesota DNR has loads of helpful tips about how to conduct a safe cleanup. Visit their web site for more information.
Hazardous waste. If you come across paint cans, drums or barrels which could contain petroleum products, fertilizers or other potentially hazardous waste… your smartest move is to not move them at all. If these objects are poorly sealed or partially rusted, even the slightest movement could cause their contents to leak into the water. Worse yet, the contents of those canisters or drums could have explosive or combustible properties. If there is even a chance… leave those objects alone, make a note of their location, and share that information with the proper authorities.
Respect the wildlife and their habitat. We’ve been lucky to see a lot of different critters on or near the water, including muskrats, beaver, raccoons, fox, deer, turtles, bald eagles, cranes… Minnesota and Wisconsin are blessed with an amazing variety of wildlife which depend on the river for sustenance. It’s a good idea to remember they “we’re just visiting, and they live here.” In some cases, this respect is mandated by law. For example, mussels are a completely protected species on the St. Croix River. (It is even unlawful to collect an empty shell.)
Protect and report culturally significant or historically important artifacts. Don’t move them or alter their position. Instead, record their location, take a photo of the object if you can, and report your findings to the National Park Service, Department of Natural Resources, or whichever agency has jurisdiction over the waterway where the finding occurred. For example, on the St. Croix Scenic Riverway, there is a Cultural Resources Specialist who is in charge of providing guidance in the protection of cultural and historic artifacts. Her name is Jean Schaeppi, and you can click here to send an email to her with any questions you might have on the topic. Jean will tell you that the National Park Service is very interested in these items, however, once they are removed from their location, they lose much of their historical importance and become just another historical object. Again: leave them alone, record their position, and report them to Jean (on the St. Croix) or other appropriate authority.
Beware that not all junk is trash! In our surveillance of the Mississippi River, we’ve come across a lot of concrete and cinder block along the shoreline… but not all of it is bad! To be sure, there are a few sites where someone has clearly dumped their leftover construction materials or items removed during a project demolition. But in other cases, discarded concrete has been used by the city, county or state to protect the riverbank from erosion. So if you come across a bunch of street curbing or cinderblock, don’t assume they should be removed. They might be serving an important purpose.
Respect property rights. People who own the property adjacent to a river have the right to control traffic on their land. If you’ll be conducting a cleanup effort which involves land that is privately owned by a person or business, ask their permission. If your cleanup involves “public” lands, you might still need permission; our efforts, so far, have required communication with Three Rivers Park District, Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, Anoka County Parks & Rec, the National Park Service, and we’ve also been in touch with both the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNR offices. County administrators can usually help you figure out who the landowners are… so that you can clean up the river without getting into hot water.
Natural states. When working on a clean-up, I’m of the opinion is that if Mother Nature put something in the river, it is not my job to take it out. Often, there will be logs jarred against a fishing pier or bridge truss which can cause debris to gather. In that case, I have no interest in trying to remove the logs or branches. That’s up to nature. My job is to focus on the debris that was placed by human hands.
Anyone who has had the chance to spend time on the river and appreciate its’ beauty can become passionate about efforts to preserve and cleanse those waterways. But in our enthusiasm, it is important to “first, do no harm.” A river can be a fragile thing… and we’re well advised to handle it with care.
© 2008 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.