This is a guest post written by Michele Crockett at RiverBent.
One of Sarah Nelson’s favorite days since founding the river conservation organization Protect Our Rivers was an October river cleanup in Denver with Odell Brewing that brought out participants of all ages decked out in Halloween costumes.
“You would see the cutest little unicorn or a little witch who was on a mission to put river trash in her cauldron,” said Nelson.
Children dive right into river cleanups with Protect Our Rivers(photo by Lindsey McKissick)
This simple notion of a single person—no matter how small—taking direct action to improve the health of a river is a core tenet of Protect Our Rivers, a nonprofit that Nelson started in 2020 to engage people—river runners and otherwise—in river protection. Protect Our Rivers organized 27 events in 2021 that drew more than 700 participants and removed more than 12,000 pounds of trash from eight different waterways in Colorado.
“We started as a grassroots movement with the belief that one small act can lead to greater change,” said Nelson. “Sometimes you don’t think you can make a difference, or your actions don’t matter—or that they matter, but not on a scale to make a significant change. Our niche is showing people that actions do matter, their attendance at cleanups matters. The ways they compost and recycle and reduce water consumption have the potential to make a big impact.”
Nelson also believes that “boots on the ground” is the best way to get people engaged. Just passing out flyers doesn’t cut it.
“But giving them an experience—whether that’s a conservation experience like a river cleanup or taking them river running—is a good entry point into what we do.”
Family participation at a July 2021 cleanup with Odell Brewing, a partner of Protect Our Rivers (photo by Jessica Cuneo Photography)
River cleanups have been the primary focus so far for Protect Our Rivers, which Nelson started after being inspired by a river trip through the pristine wilderness of Cataract Canyon—and the pride that the trip organizers took to leave the river as they found it.
“The way river runners take care of campsites was like nothing I had ever seen,” said Nelson. The Cataract trip, which was organized as a staff outing by Denver-based Down River Equipment, incorporated Leave No Trace principles on a whole other level. Nelson was particularly impressed by the organization and cleanliness of the camp kitchens.
That focused approach on river stewardship, “on top of the gorgeous canyon,” gave Nelson the notion that all rivers need to be protected, starting with some trash removal. Nelson had experience with organizing river cleanups in her marketing role with the now-defunct Good River Beer, which partnered with 2 Percent for Rivers. After that gig ended, Nelson saw an opportunity to parlay her experience into establishing a new nonprofit that focused on river conservation, education, and access. These three pillars form the organization’s mission.
“Conservation is the number-one thing we have to do—we protect rivers by organizing cleanups across Colorado and the Western Region to remove and prevent trash from getting into our waterways and harming ecosystems and aquatic life,” said Nelson. “We also use cleanups as a way to educate people on how to minimize their impact on the environment.”
The access pillar is focused not on the policies (and politics) of providing and regulating boating launch sites but on the concept of invitation—making citizens feel welcome and appreciated in engaging in river stewardship.
Although river cleanups seem like an activity that would primarily draw paddlers, Nelson said most of the volunteers to date have not been river runners. The events have drawn citizens who recognize the benefits of rivers in their communities and witness the toll that abuse and neglect can take on these prized waterways, especially in urban areas.
Sarah Nelson, Founder of Protect Our Rivers, on a Westwater cleanup (photo by Jessica Cuneo Photography)
“Some people have so appreciated what they’ve learned at river cleanups because they’ll realize that this is a river that their kids have played in and they didn’t realize how dirty it was,” said Nelson. “This creates the connection: They think about where their water comes from, where their kids play, and start to do something about protecting those places.
Combining river-running trips with cleanups is one of the group’s short-term goals.
“We tested it with our staff this year because we didn’t want to be putting people on water before we figured out the logistics,” said Nelson. The group is also partnered with GOALS Youth River Expeditions, based in Evergreen, Colorado, which connects kids with rivers to “demonstrate the positive impacts each can have on the other.” Through their partnership, Protect Our Rivers will provide river education opportunities for GOALs youth participants.
Watershed education is more effective when kids can directly experience the consequences of people’s actions, Nelson said.
“Particularly for elementary or middle-schoolers, they don’t really understand how everything in our streets ends up in storm drains, and then the rivers. But by being at the cleanups, they have a chance to figure out ways to prevent that pollution source. Being on the river, they can see where the runoff ends in the watershed. All that trash they just picked up might have ended up in the river.”
Expanding river protection nationwide
In 2022, expanding river cleanups across the U.S. is a key focus area for Protect Our Rivers, an initiative they’ll jump-start through their network of partners, such as Rocky Mountain Rafts in West Virginia and Astral in North Carolina.
2021 South Platte River cleanup in Denver with Protect Our Rivers organization(photo by Jessica Cuneo Photography)
Nelson’s vision for the group’s trajectory over the next five years is clear: Steadily growing grassroots initiatives like river cleanups across the U.S., expanding river access through education, and eventually having a seat at the table for policy advocacy.
“We want to be known as a grassroots movement that lets you get your feet wet and your hands dirty,” said Nelson. “And we want to be known as a group that recognizes you as part of this community. When we see you at a cleanup, we know your name. Together, we’re going to be a positive force to protect rivers.”
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