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Volunteers tackle water pollution

Rivers Alive cleanup is Saturday

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POSTED: October 20, 2010 9:00 a.m.
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Liberty County’s waterways need help. And on Saturday, as part of Make A Difference Day, that help will descend on area ponds, rivers, lakes, streams and the ocean in the form of hundreds of volunteers, eager to learn about and protect local marine resources and ecosystems.
Make A Difference Day, created by “USA Weekend Magazine” and celebrated annually on the fourth Saturday in October, is a nationwide event designed to promote volunteerism. Keep Liberty Beautiful’s Rivers Alive cleanup affords area residents the opportunity to improve their communities while helping to preserve one of the coastal region’s most valuable commodities — and not a moment too soon.
Sara Swida, director of Keep Liberty Beautiful, said the program has made inroads since its inception five years ago, but there’s still no shortage of litter choking the region’s waterways.
During the first Rivers Alive cleanup, a beach sweep at St. Catherine’s Island netted nearly two tons of garbage, which took three boat trips to bring back, Swida said.
“We still have a long way to go,” she said, although the KLB director thinks increased awareness has helped curb the amount of garbage that ends up in waterways. “When people care, it improves the community and the quality of life.”
Volunteers will comb 26 Liberty County sites Saturday, including swampland, marshes and rivers, to collect litter before it reaches main bodies of water, such as the ocean. So far, 386 people have signed up and Swida said the number is climbing.
Anyone who wants to participate should sign up by Thursday to ensure there will be enough gloves, trash bags and bottled water for everyone. Last year, 342 volunteers helped out.
David Sapp, 71, has volunteered every year for Rivers Alive. As a former solid waste director for Liberty County, he said he can’t help but pick up trash when he sees it blowing around the community.
“If I see litter in a parking lot, I bend down and pick it up. It’s a habit,” Sapp said. 
He also serves as a board member for Keep Liberty Beautiful and said he has made community cleanup a part of his everyday life. His wife, Pat Sapp, who passed away several years ago, was the former director of KLB and started Liberty County’s recycling program, Sapp said.
He said Rivers Alive isn’t just about doing good deeds, but about the overall health of the community and learning about how harmful pollution can be if it gets into the water system.
 “I think the biggest thing is we’re trying to keep the pollution out of the waterways on a regular basis. Hopefully, through the cleanups, we’re educating people,” he said.
Sapp will be the site manager for Riceboro Creek, which is one of the most heavily polluted areas. About 20 volunteers are needed to adequately tidy up the area. 
In the past, volunteers have pulled couches, glass bottles and plastics from marshes, among other items, which seems unbelievable to both Swida and Sapp when services like curbside pick-up are available. 
The most common item disposed of in waterways is glass bottles, which are harmful to the animals and their habitat, the KLB director said.
Rivers Alive has been in place for 10 years and has increased participation every year, said Lacey Avery, Rivers Alive outreach program assistant.
Overall, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of trash collected during Rivers Alive events at different sites around the state from August through December, showing that the initiative is working, Avery said.
She blames improper garbage disposal and carelessness on lack of education.
“People just aren’t aware … when you throw something in the water, it travels downstream and it affects everybody,” she said. “I don’t think people think long term.”
Avery said participation in the program has grown over the years and that although there are some agencies that focus strictly on community public health — like the Environmental Protection Agency — that it isn’t enough to maintain a healthy, litter-free community.
“EPD’s job is to monitor the waterways, but they can’t do it just themselves … they need everyone to help,” Avery said. “Without the volunteers, we wouldn’t have the program. We’re very grateful for the volunteers.”
Factories, industry and development also contribute to pollution problems, said Dianna Wedincamp, Ogeechee Riverkeeper program director.
Wedincamp said failing wastewater treatment plants add to the pollution of the coastal Ogeechee River Basin, because the facilities are not up to par with technological advances.
“Partially treated and some untreated sewage draining into public waters is a potential health threat to everyone who uses the creeks, streams, rivers and the ocean for fishing, boating, skiing, jet skiing, swimming and many other outdoor activities,” Wedincamp wrote in an e-mail.
“The smallest of things can pollute our waterways,” Wedincamp said. “So all litter is bad, no matter how small.”
After Saturday’s cleanups, lunch will be provided by sponsor SNF Chemtall. Children are welcome, but must be accompanied by an adult.
“I would just encourage people of all ages to get involved,” Sapp said. “It really helps our community and it really helps our area.”
Swida couldn’t agree more. “We want to start ’em as young as possible.”
 

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