Monday, August 11, 2008

A little too much of a good thing?

By now, visitors to this conversation realize that one of the most challenging waterways we’ve tackled is the north metro Mississippi River, running from Rice Creek in Fridley to Boom Island, near downtown Minneapolis. Over the past few months, we’ve been contacted by few different groups who were looking for a site to clean. Among these were a school looking for a class project… or a local public service group hoping to clean-up the neighborhood they serve. Recently, a more sizable organization sought us out, saying that they were looking for a project that could benefit from nearly 200 volunteers, showing up for four to six hours on a single day.

Now, you don’t just drop two hundred people into a project like this without some intense planning. So we began to think of ways of organizing this one-day assault. The group would meet at the open-air pavilion run by Minneapolis Parks & Rec. From there, buses would dispatch teams of thirty to fifty people to sites that were “skill appropriate.” Softer-shore clean-up groups would be sent to the boat launch in the Camden area just south of the 37th/42nd Avenue Bridge, as well as the Anoka Parks and Rec land—on the east bank—which runs from I-694 south toward the Minneapolis Water Works plant. People suited to more challenging terrain would be taken by bus to the Three Rivers Park District fishing pier, just south of 694 on the west bank… and to a hill that provides somewhat steep access to the area between 53rd and 57th Avenue North. In areas where the terrain made removing trash and dumped items too difficult or dangerous, we would employ the use of two garbage barges--my name for a pair of boats designed for this type of work--operated by Minnesota River Revitalization, Inc., of Red Wing. The two boats would transfer recovered items to the Camden boat launch, where designated trucks would haul scrap iron, tires, cinderblock and concrete debris, and finally, trash, sorted by plastic and non-plastic.

Two weeks ago, I presented this plan to a partial committee representing the volunteer organization. We met at the North Mississippi Park to discuss pros, cons, and how teams could be created so that no volunteer would be asked to do anything that they might be incapable of or uncomfortable with. We talked about having first responders available, and what kind of additional project partners might be needed (snacks and refreshments to keep volunteers hydrated, porta-potties, t-shirts for the volunteers to wear during the event, etc.)

In the end, the group has decided to abandon the plan, fearing that this stretch of river would be too dangerous. After my meeting with the committee representatives at the pavilion two weeks ago, additional members of the organization were provided foot tour last week of some the Minneapolis Parks & Rec land involved—provided by one of the MPR maintenance supervisors. After their walk, they decided the terrain and trash to present risk greater than they could be comfortable with.

Of course, I'm disappointed at the loss of the manpower this sizable group represents. But I am not terribly surprised by their decision. Nobody wants to put any group of volunteers into harms’ way. Not the organization I’ve been talking about, and certainly not me.

There are sections along this stretch of river which present certain hazards (I’ve acknowledged this point often). These hazards include treacherous shorelines, made so by the dumping of city and county concrete and curbing over the years, and there are street sewer spillways. There are fallen trees and steep inclines to reach the river. (You can click the slideshow above to see larger images of some of these hazards.) Sadly, though, there are more sedate sections of riverbank which will also go uncleaned with the cancellation of this project; areas where cleaning the shoreline would have been no more risky than, well, "a walk on the beach."

That said, some of the greatest risk surrounding this project may have been that it involved such a potentially large--and perhaps uncontrollable--group of people. Any group of people that wants to help is a good thing. But in this case, it might have been too much of a good thing!

The Learning Curve
Dozens of hours went into the planning of this event… and while the group has decided against the project, this was still time well spent. It made me stop and think about our overall approach to river restoration, and better grasp the sheer scope of the challenge. It forced me to consider logistical tools that I had not thought of before. And it created another opportunity for me to work with potential partners, including philanthropic organizations, businesses, and public sector agencies. Each presents unique challenges, but each of these constituencies can also hold people of talent who want to help.

In my very early posts on this blog, I committed to targeting the whole river, not just those spots which are convenient and perhaps already receiving the benefit of casual pedestrian clean-up efforts. That commitment remains solid. But another fact of environmental life occurs to me: It’s easy for people to fall in love with the idea of environmental recovery or river restoration… but it is can be much more difficult for people to take the steps required to actually get it done. It’s kind of like adopting a puppy; early on, the idea is adorable and cute. But once you see what’s really involved with cleaning-up after it, the project loses some lustre.

I cannot repeat this often enough: The decision of this particular group to withdraw is something I both understand and respect. This was a very large group—and its’ sheer size might have created hazards that a smaller group would not face during the course of a clean-up day. And their decision in no way deters me from the goal of restoring those sections of river that Julie and I have adopted. For each time I discover a plan that will not work, it leads me one step closer to one that will.

(I am told that last statement paraphrases Thomas Edison. I knew it was too good to be original!)

© 2008, Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

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