Students Clean Up “Big Muddy”

Halfway between America the Beautiful’s shining seas lays a brown, rolling monolith of a river, carving a hook through the Midwest. The Missouri River – affectionately nicknamed “Big Muddy” for high silt content, gives the river its dusty color and thick-looking water – is just a short walk north of city market. Students can stand on the river’s edge under the highway overpass. There they can wonder what lies beneath this Wonka-esque water.
Or, they can drive forty-five minutes off campus, get in a boat and find out. A troop of UMKC students did this last Saturday.
They packed into industrial-sized fishing boats armed with life vests and giant blue trash bags. Their mission: clean up the Big Muddy.
This clean-up was student Kathleen Moburg’s first. The only other time she could remember being on the Missouri River was in a ferry boat.

 

UMKC Student Kathleen Moburg

UMKC Student Kathleen Moburg

“The main goal is to have people connect with the river,” Moburg said, “instead of it being an inconvenience, something you have to drive over. I think that’s an amazing thing.”
Moburg used to teach biology and earth science to high schoolers. After retiring, she started taking geosciences courses at UMKC.
“Something I’m going to take away from this is the amount of trash that collects here,” Moburg said.

 

The Missouri River, affectionately called "Big Muddy"

The Missouri River, affectionately called “Big Muddy”

The Student Environmental Coalition and Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists cohosted the event. A private landowner allowed the volunteers to camp out and use his property as a home base for the clean-up.

 

Senior Kellie Case has been to five river clean-ups. This event was the first the university fully funded.
“I’m very pleased with the university,” Case said.

 

UMKC student Kellie Case joins the cleanup

UMKC student Kellie Case joins the cleanup

The brisk 40 degrees couldn’t chill the spirits of the volunteers, who camped overnight near the launch site. The students, Missouri River Relief workers and a yellow lab named Saffron cleaned up the banks. They collected hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam containers, syringes, flip flops and part of a pontoon boat.

 

Saffron the dog

Saffron the dog

One team was dropped near a floating barge of driftwood and trash. The bright whites and blues of plastic waste floated gently over the current. Saffron, spotting a neon yellow softball, scrambled into the trash barge, thinking it was land, and sunk into the debris. She jumped out of the waste-laden river with difficulty and shook her fur.

 

A boat near the trash barge.

A boat near the trash barge.

Jeff Barrow, Director of the Missouri River Relief, is a veteran river clean-up enthusiast. He discovered the Big Muddy when he moved to Missouri at age 30.
“The bottom line is I just fell in love with the river and the experiences I’ve had, the friends that I’ve met and the magic moments,” Barrow said.
Barrow, an avid paddler and outdoorsman, was inspired by Chad Pregracke’s movement to clean up the Mississippi. Barrow and his friend Jim Karpowicz, the founder of Missouri River Relief, enticed Pregracke to help them hold their own river clean-up Oct. 6, 2001.
“Right after 9/11, so people were looking for something to do that was positive,” Barrow said. “We had 300 people show and they cleaned up more than 30 tons of trash in one day. We said, ‘we need to form our own organization.’”
Forty percent of Missourians get their drinking water from the Missouri River, after it’s been clarified and purified. Residents also depend on the Missouri for electricity, and six major power plants use the river for cooling water.
“Our lives are connected and dependent on the Missouri River in these unknown ways,” Barrow said. “You turn on your shower, do people think about where the water really comes from?”
According to Barrow, a cigarette butt on a city sidewalk and a plastic bottle in a park usually find their way to the lowest point of water flow after rains, which is the Missouri.
“I have this knowledge base that makes me want to take care of the Missouri River,” Barrow said. “There’s more to it than beautiful sunsets. One of the things that people give back to the river is trash, litter and debris. The number one item we find is plastic bottles.”
At first glance, spending a weekend day picking up trash doesn’t sound like a good time. But Barrow argues that it is exactly that, and more.
“It’s a community thing,” Barrow said. “Normally when you get groups of people together, they’re at a ball game or concert, but they don’t really have to show for it at the end. At the end of a clean-up you have this huge pile of trash that’s going to a land fill or recycling center. The team spirit that comes from that is outstanding. All of us together make a huge impact. And people are into instant gratification. It’s not like planting a tree, you get to see it immediately.”
The MRR has taken 20,000 people onto the river. Most of the residents had never been on the river in a boat before.
“They’re frightened,” Barrow said. “They’re straight faced and wide-eyed. They solve problems together and meet challenges. Then when they come back, by then they’re laughing, they’re telling their war stories about what they found and how they dealt with it.”
Recently, Barrow and the MRR took a group of eighth grade boys to a “honey hole,” clean-up slang for a spot with plenty of trash.

 

“We had to go up this steep bank,” Barrow said. “Bottles and trash all over, and there was this big refrigerator.”

 

After cleaning up the rest of the litter, the boys expressed doubt about getting the fridge out of the honey hole.
“We were able to roll it onto the bank,” Barrow said. “And the kids were like, ‘We can’t get it in the boat.’ So we worked out a strategy and got it in the boat. We’ve done the impossible. By working together, we can get this task done. These are eighth grade boys, all sitting in the boat enraptured with the thing. They were caught, learning a lesson for anything in life.”

 

Students pose with a pontoon

Students pose with a pontoon

Barrow has done two camp-outs with the UMKC group, and he’s been impressed with their thoughtfulness and intelligence.
“I want to give props to the UMKC students,” Barrow said. “They get away from campus, from their normal routine. They all have to work together. It builds bonds between people. It’s super powerful. It’s really fun. It’s more than fun. The after effects of it are powerful and positive.”

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