Adopt-a-River Cleanup Review

Cleanup Review: News and information for participants in the Minnesota Adopt-a-River program

Adopt-a-River Newsletter

Vol. 22, No. 1 Winter 2013

In This Issue

25 Years of Adopt-a-River: Paul Nordell Reflects

Adopt-a-River results since 1989. 6,400,000 pounds of trash collected by 96,000 volunteers contributing 318,000 hours. 3,300 cleanups on 12,000 miles.

Acknowledging the continued environmental concerns of Minnesotans and a shift in public attitude towards water stewardship, Governor Rudy Perpich established the Minnesota Clean Rivers Task Force in November 1987. He asked Deputy DNR Commissioner Steve Thorne to head up an inter-agency task force of executive branch department heads who had a vested interest in river preservation. This group met to explore what could be done publicly and privately to organize and accelerate the cleanup and beautification of Minnesota’s rivers.  From that inter-agency task force, the Minnesota Clean Rivers Project evolved.

The Minnesota Clean Rivers Project was created to instill pride in our rivers and to promote programs and citizen actions to cleanup existing eyesores on the rivers  and protect their scenic beauty and recreational opportunity. 

The day in which the changing public attitude toward water stewardship became most visible was Wednesday, June 29, 1988, when the largest community river cleanup in Minnesota history took place. It happened in Lilydale, a small riverfront village near downtown Saint Paul that had been inundated by flood waters five times between 1951 and 1969. Finally, in 1971, the Legislature authorized the Saint Paul Port Authority to start buying up these often-flooded parcels in the Pickerel Lake area river bottoms, to become a future park and green space.  By 1988, however, the unprotected area had declined into a space that attracted enormous amounts of illegal dumping and squalor. 

This is the spot Governor Perpich chose to make a frontal attack on this abuse of unoccupied public space.  On that day, 185 volunteers showed up. This included 95 from DNR, Saint Paul Mayor George Latimer, Commissioner Joe Alexander, Saint Paul Parks and Recreation, Talented Urban Youth, the Minnesota National Guard, and Smokey Bear.  77 tons were removed, loading 40 trucks with the trash.  A key player, the director of Minnesota Conservation Corps Larry Fonnest, described the event as the “mother of all river cleanups.”  Today, this area is one of St. Paul’s most newly developed regional parks.

The Governor conducted similar cleanups in various hot spots throughout the state, all to raise awareness of the deplorable state of our public waters.  But as these cleanups continued, it became clear that a program needed to be established to continue to enable and empower Minnesotans to carry out cleanups of their own at the community level.  Thus, the Adopt-a-River program was born. 

Inspired by one of the Governor’s cleanups in Cloquet on the St. Louis River (September 30, 1988), the Woodlander’s 4-H Club became the first Adopt-a-River group on October 17.  The first group reporting an Adopt-a-River shoreline cleanup was Boy Scout Troop 249, cleaning Brown’s Creek in Stillwater on August 14, 1989. This is now the location of one of the DNR’s newest trails: the Brown’s Creek State Trail.

Starting from one Boy Scout effort in 1989, the program has grown over the years.  It has now completed 3,330 cleanups with almost 95,000 volunteers, removing 6.3 million pounds of trash from 12,000 miles of shoreline.

From the beginning, the mission of the Adopt-a-River program has continued to empower citizens to become stewards of the state’s public waters through annual cleanups. This mission carries out the vision of creating a future where man-made debris no longer accents our public waters, and a richer and more beautiful resource is enjoyed by the community.  When people participate in a cleanup, they develop a greater sense of place, a greater sense of ownership, a greater sense of community, a greater sense of tranquility, a greater sense of camaraderie, a greater sense of accomplishment, and a greater sense of appreciation for an often over-looked community resource.

The person who is an Adopt-a-River volunteer is a steward of a public resource, and thus becomes a special kind of volunteer.  As stated by the White House Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, “A volunteer is a person who can see what others cannot see; who can feel what most do not feel. Often, such gifted persons do not think of themselves as volunteers, but as citizens in the fullest sense; partners in civilization.”  I have often said that the person who gets a little river mud on his or her hands at a water cleanup never again thinks the same about that resource.

To our supporters and volunteers, thank you for all you do for the stewardship of our public waters,

Paul Nordell, Adopt-a-River Program Coordinator

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Great Lakes gyres raise concerns

In Minnesota, when people talk of the Great Lakes, they focus on the waters of Lake Superior.  Clean and pristine, this is where people go to get away from the hustle of the city—to a lake whose beauty and worth is recognized internationally.  In Minnesota, however, people are also becoming more aware of the fact that the lake is under both ecological and man-made threats.

Graphic depicting the currents that create gyres

As Adopt-a-River volunteers, you have seen the sheer amount of plastic that accumulates on river banks.  Green bottles, clear bottles, plastic bags, straws, red solo cups, packaging—the plastic that has become so integral to our society is affecting watershed quality.  You may be aware of the so-called garbage patches in our oceans.  These plastic particle concentrations are caught in large currents (gyres) and accumulate in large masses (estimates for the size of the Pacific Garbage Patch span from larger than Texas to twice the size of the United States, though no scientifically sound estimate exists).  Plastic, made to last forever, may actually come close to accomplishing that distinction as it breaks down into smaller pieces over time. Five oceanic gyres collecting plastics have been observed, with some smaller gyres found in other parts of the world, including the Great Lakes.  

The masses of plastic in the Great Lakes are not the islands of white and green that you may imagine.  Rather, they are large areas of concentrated plastic particles.  They enter the Great Lakes through storm drains and other outfalls in the watershed.  Some particles are so small that waste treatment plants cannot screen them out, while others are larger and evidence of products being broken down over time by wind, sun, and waves.  Some are invisible to the naked eye.  When ingested by fish and birds, these plastics particles collect inside stomachs, blocking digestive tracks and often resulting in death by starvation. Other results may include bodily absorption of harmful chemicals as they leach out of the plastic.  In both scenarios, the toxins from the plastic get passed through the food chain as they are consumed by other wildlife.

As the AP reported this summer, “the best way to avoid environmental damage from plastics is to keep them out of the water in the first place.”  Every bottle that Adopt-a-River volunteers pick up is one less bottle that breaks apart further downstream.  Every plastic bag pulled out of the water is one less plastic bag that suffocates, strangles, or obstructs the digestion of wildlife.  

Share the message—reduce, reuse, recycle, and help keep Minnesota’s public waters clean.  Grow your Adopt group, or encourage others to join the program.  The more that we get involved, the more we can keep plastics and other debris out of the water, for the benefit of wildlife and all those who depend on and enjoy our public waters.



“How big is the great pacific garbage patch?  Science vs. Myth.” February 7, 2013. NOAA.

“Marine Debris: What we know about the garbage patches.” NOAA.

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Historical Moment: "Arouse this sleeping recreational giant - canoeing!"

Minnesota State Water Trails: your routes to discovery since 1963

In the land of 10,000 lakes (actually, it’s 22,000) it’s easy to understand why it is that the iconic image of canoeing in Minnesota is the picturesque silhouette of a canoe on a lake with two passengers fishing along a rocky shoreline covered with towering pines.  Yet, it’s Minnesota’s rivers that caught the canoeing spotlight in 1963 and, 50 years later, are again taking center stage.

2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the State Water Trails system, the first and largest in the nation.  Started as “canoe and boating routes”, the system began with just four rivers: the Minnesota, St. Croix, Big Fork, and Little Fork.  At the time this river legislation was passed, people were beginning to enjoy more leisure time, more mobility, and more expendable income than before, creating a societal shift towards recreation.  Attendance at state and national parks skyrocketed, purchases of hunting and fishing licenses continued to rise, and records of travel and leisure expenses showed considerable growth.  As Minnesota’s lakes were becoming more crowded, attention shifted to the rivers that had seemingly been forgotten.  

Citizens passionate about canoeing and the rivers set about clearing snags and fostering public interest in using rivers for something other than dump sites.  When the 1963 Legislature authorized the Canoe and Boating Routes program, they did so to promote the rivers for recreational use, as well as to spur economic development in river towns and heighten public interest in appreciating and protecting the rivers.  The idea caught on quickly and, by 1967, over half of the current system was in place.  Today, we have 33 State Water Trails on 32 rivers and Lake Superior and a State Water Trail within an hour of just about anywhere in Minnesota.  

While Adopt-a-River volunteers can clean any shoreline in the state, the program started in part to make the State Water Trails more palatable, and they still need help from volunteers to help ensure that these quality routes remain clean and beautiful.  Take some time to explore the State Water Trails website and consider adopting one today!

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Volunteer Spotlight: Crow River Organization of Water

Volunteers lugging a giant tire out of the river

Crow River Organization of Water (CROW) received a State Water Trails 50th Anniversary grant* “to improve water quality while creating community pride and an enduring sense of stewardship for their local waters.” The organization chose to use the award to conduct their 10th anniversary Adopt-a-River cleanup on September 21. As a watershed-wide event, they conducted a 4-hour cleanup in 17 communities across the Crow River basin. The results were spectacular. They covered 40.5 miles of shoreline, removed 5,460 pounds of trash, and involved 226 volunteers who spent 904 hours achieving their goal.

Volunteers walked or canoed their designated stretch of the river, finding an amazing amount of material that did not belong in this State Water Trail. When the cleanup was completed, a trash-judging contest was conducted for each community. Exceptional trash was submitted in three categories: most historical, most unusual, and best find. Winners received a prize, were placed first in line at the lunch and, of course, received bragging rights. The entire watershed event was supported by 56 partnering sponsors.

When totaling all ten years of CROW cleanups, it results in 123,460 pounds of trash removed, 9,926 hours of effort, and 2,619 volunteers. The picture you see from the cleanup is from the Paynesville crew. It is unknown if this trophy-sized mounted tractor tire, hoisted by the strongest men in the cleanup party, was submitted for a recognition award.

* No plans are in place yet for future State Water Trail grants, but DNR will be exploring that potential.  If grants are something your adopt group would be interested in, let us know and we'll keep you in the loop.

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Long-time Adopt-a-River partner receives CNN Hero of the Year award


In 1998, Adopt-a-River partner Chad Pregracke started his non-profit organization, Living Lands and Waters (LLW).  The organization hosts river cleanups across the country, empowering local communities to get involved with and learn about watershed stewardship.  He and his organization have assisted with Adopt-a-River’s Great Mississippi Riverboat Cleanup on six occasions since 2002.  For these events, Chad has provided work boats to shuttle volunteers and haul trash.  The Adopt-a-River cleanups with his involvement have totaled tens of thousands of pounds of trash, with the help of nearly 1,000 volunteers.

On Tuesday, November 19, Pregracke was named the CNN Hero of the Year and received $250,000 to continue his work. In Chad’s acceptance speech, he pledged to spread some of his Hero of the Year money to the rest of the top 10 Heroes. He said, “I’ve met so many great people today, the other Heroes, and I’m really moved by all their stories and all the things they do around the world… I’m going to give 10 grand to each of them, because they’re awesome.”

Since Chad organized LLW, he has removed 76,000 tires, 951 refrigerators, 233 stoves and has collected 68 messages in a bottle. To date, he has done cleanups on 22 rivers in 18 states. Chad sums it all up by saying, “It’s crazy what you find in the river.” In an article about him in a previous issue of this newsletter (Vol. 16, #2) it says, “Chad is not only a friend and an inspiration to the Adopt-a-River program; he is an inspiration to many Americans. He is also a reminder that you really can make a difference when you put your heart into what you are doing.”

This award will help Chad continue his work.  “I’ll just keep on cleaning up America’s rivers and loving every minute of it.”  We hope you love every minute of your cleanups, too.


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New Adopt Groups: Welcome to the club!

Every year, new groups of excited and engaged volunteers join the ranks of the Adopt-a-River program.  This year's groups who also completed their first clean up and reported their results are:

  • Concordia St. Paul
  • Diane and Darryl Sannes
  • Lower Twin Lake Association
  • Daniel L. Bender
  • Optum Enterprise Reporting and Metrics
  • Ottertail River Kayak and Canoe Club

Additionally, many groups who had become "Inactive Adopt" groups over the years came back in 2013 with renewed interest and vigor.  Thank you to everyone out there helping to protect our public waters!

Do you think Adopt-a-River is for you? Then sign up today and find you name on this list in the future after you complete and report your first cleanup.


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2013 Recap: Great Mississippi Riverboat Cleanup

Happy, rain soaked volunteers on the way to the cleanup sites.

With a send-off from Director Courtland Nelson and Assistant Commissioner Erika Rivers, about 120 participants boarded the Jonathan Padelford and departed from Harriet Island in Saint Paul for the 22nd Great Mississippi Riverboat Cleanup. After getting drenched in about an inch of rain over three hours, they filled roughly half of a large dumpster with trash removed from a sand bar near the old Saint Paul Sea Plane Harbor on the Mississippi River. 

In the afternoon, a smaller crew went further downriver to retrieve over 100 tires that had been collected earlier from the backwaters south of the Wakota Bridge in Inver Grove Heights. When all was done, ample materials had been gathered for the Minnesota State Fair Adopt-a-River sculpture, a tribute to the 96,000 volunteers.

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2013 Recap: Adopt-a-River Crime Lab

A key Adopt-a-River educational effort is the Crime Lab, presented in three different locations: in a school class room , on a lawn, and on a riverboat.  Whether around a table or on a tarp, they spread out their bag “crime evidence” to solve a crime committed against the river.  The class is designed for students (4-6 grade) who  examine a bag of actual river trash and then deduce how it arrived at the river’s edge.  Students are guided through the exercise, stretching their critical powers of observation.  By the end of the exercise, students are able to see how the street connects to the river, and can support their conclusions based on the evidence they examined. This year’s participants included about 5,400 students from Twin Cities schools as well as a number from southwest Minnesota.

Since 1996, nearly 67,000 students have gone through the Crime Lab. The riverboat version of the lab, in partnership with the National Park Service and others, is evaluated in the spring and fall, and consistently gets high marks for how it engages the students in critical thinking. As one student wrote, “I really liked river crime lab because it helped you learn about causes of real pollution in the Mississippi River. You can brainstorm causes as well as learn common ones.” 


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Beyond Minnesota: Cold Coral Canyons

A crab picks its way along a vast bed of mussels living on methane seeping from the ocean floor

Picture it - 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean in canyons receiving no sunlight - a giant garden of corals discovered where no life was thought to live.  

The garden is home to what may be the largest blanket of mussels in the world and trees of bubblegum coral up to 15 feet tall.  Marine scientists have been cataloging the different species in these canyons off the East Coast in a research project that began in 2011.  They’ve already found a dozen species, but the most important discovery may have been a methane cold seep larger than any previously found.  Such methane seeps are believed to occur as ancient organic matter releases gases from deep-sea sediments.  

Ordinarily considered toxic, coastal methane seeps provide life-sustaining components for an ecosystem living in total darkness, without the aid of photosynthesis!  While the hot hydrothermal vents along the deep-sea mid-oceanic ridges may be better known, these cold methane seeps near the continental shelf may well be occurring in less-explored reaches of the oceans, with implications for the discovery of life on our own planet and, perhaps, others.

In this magical place, researchers have found something else—we humans may have already impacted this previously un-visited corner of the earth.  What was also discovered in this hidden place are plastic bags, traps and discarded nets—all entangled in and wrapped around the corals.  Steve Ross, a fisheries biologist at the University of North Carolina, had “never seen that much junk on good habitat in 30-plus years of doing this kind of work.”  Even in this out-of-the-way place, evidence exists for the need to be better stewards of our environment.

It will continue to take all of us working together to protect our public waters.  And we’ll need more people to join the fight so that when we discover another beautiful place, we won’t discover that our trash is already there.


Photo from Art Howard, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

Source: Nash, S. P. (2013, June 16). Vivid corals and other creatures are found deep off the Mid-Atlantic coast. The Washington Post. Retrieved from


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Happy 30th Birthday, Peanut!

Peanut the turtle, who has a shell shaped like a peanut as a result of getting stuck in a six-pack ring

Happy 30th Birthday, Peanut! Found at the age of 9 with a six-pack ring around her shell, Peanut the turtle continues to serve as a reminder of why it is important to pick up litter and care for our environment. Over the years, she has become an unofficial mascot of the Adopt-a-River Program, whose volunteers pick up hundreds of thousands of pounds of trash every year, reducing the threats to wildlife caused by our trash.

When we posted her picture to the Minnesota State Parks and Trails Facebook page, the image reached 33,000 people!  The page typically reaches only 4,500 people per day with multiple posts, and Peanut reached more than 7X as many all on her own!  What a great birthday present!  


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Continuing a tradition of water stewardship

Adopt-a-River: stewarding our public waters for 25 years

Minnesota is a remarkable state.  The water starts here, and we have lots of it.  22,000 lakes and ponds over 2.5 acres, and more than 90,000 miles of flowing water make up the land of sky blue waters.  Not many places exist where you have the chance to care for the water from its source.  As Minnesota’s waters extend into three major watersheds (the Mississippi, the Great Lakes/Saint Lawrence, and the Red River/Hudson Bay), its citizens have the unique opportunity to model better care for these resources in a way that impacts much of the continent.

Residents of Minnesota have long held a firm belief that people need to be involved in the protection of surface water.  The State Water Trails system was established in 1963 as the Canoe and Boating Routes program to help draw attention to the rivers and get people to think about them differently.   In 1967, Minnesota adopted the state’s first water quality standards—a full five years before the passage of the Federal Clean Water Act.  20 years later, the Perpich administration established the inter-agency Minnesota Clean Rivers Task Force, acknowledging the continuing environmental concerns of Minnesotans.

After a series of well-publicized, governor-sponsored cleanups in 1988, a more sustainable, scaled-down approach to shoreline cleanup was instituted in 1989 with the formation of the Adopt-a-River program.  25 years later, the Adopt-a-River program is still empowering Minnesota residents to take an active role in caring for the state’s public waters.  But while the attitude toward public waters has continued to progress, it is crucial that we work to ensure that the gains of the past are maintained.  

Unfortunately, Minnesotans have, in the past 10 years, nearly doubled their contributions to the plastics portion of the waste stream (from 3.8 to 6.6 percent of all Minnesota garbage).  The small portion of this garbage that escapes onto our streets rapidly washes into our surface water through rain and snow melt.  And other threats to our waters also need our attention: water tables are falling, erosion and sedimentation are dramatically reshaping our landscape, Lake Superior is experiencing issues with algae as a result of warming, and aquatic invasive species are impacting more water bodies and in increasingly significant ways every day.  And this is just the beginning.  

In the face of all of this, we have good news: individual actions still make a difference for our public waters. Such as is the case with Adopt-a-River, there are things you can do every day to make a difference, and many programs waiting to help you make changes or have volunteers sign up.  Soon, the Adopt-a-River website will be updated to include other programs you can get involved with to take stewardship to the next level.  You can expand beyond your activities with Adopt-a-River, or you can  send the info on to that coworker you could never convince to help you pick up water-logged trash.  Stay tuned for this new resource!

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The Cleanup Review is published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the Adopt-a-River program in the Division of Parks and Trails.

Jen Kader, Editor, Special Events and Community Outreach Specialist

Paul Nordell, Adopt-a-River Program Coordinator

Courtland Nelson, Director of the Division of Parks and Trails

Luke Skinner, Deputy Director of the Division of Parks and Trails

DNR, Adopt-a-River and Conservation Corps logos

Adopt-a-River: stewarding our public waters for 25 years

Next year is Adopt-a-River’s 25th Anniversary.  As we enter into this benchmark year, we’ve set a goal: let’s reach 7 million pounds of trash and 100,000 volunteers. 

We only need 600,000 pounds of trash and 4,300 volunteers to get there.  It will be a stretch and definitely put us to the test, but we think we can make it. 

With volunteers like you, we know we can because you are among many who believe protecting our public waters in unprecedented numbers is something worth striving for.

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Question and Answers

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