More than 100 volunteers, mostly wearing bright yellow T-shirts and orange mesh vests, took to boats or foot to pick up trash along Alabama 77 and in the waterways of the Coosa River in Ohatchee as part of Alabama Power’s Renew Our Rivers project.
Saturday’s cleanup event, organized by the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce and the Neely Henry Lake Association, marked the first time Renew Our Rivers cleaned up Calhoun County’s portion of the lake. Mike Clelland, an Alabama Power employee helping out Saturday, said since 1999, Renew Our Rivers has had more than 50,000 volunteers and picked up more than 12 million pounds of trash, including 10 million in the state of Alabama.
The program extends into four states, but it got its start just upstream in Etowah County.
“It started right here on the Coosa River,” Clelland said. “In fact it was originally called Renew the Coosa before it became a statewide thing.”
Volunteers in Etowah County have made cleaning up Neely Henry Lake an annual project, but until Saturday, the southern half of the reservoir in Calhoun County had been largely ignored.
“What happened is they have a Keep Etowah Beautiful program and got a lot of help and coordination from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office, so they were kind of limited to Etowah County,” said Kelly Stephens, the president of the Neely Henry Lake Association. “But we saw a need to do something here in Calhoun County too.”
Volunteers turned out in force for Calhoun County’s first Neely Henry Lake cleanup. Although the Chamber planned for 150 volunteers, more than 160 registered, including around 60 students from various clubs at Ohatchee High School.
“I’ve been to a lot of these and sometimes you get maybe 10 people,” Clelland said. “And 10 people can get a lot done, but this is a fantastic turnout for a first time.”
Judging how quickly volunteers were filling up trash bags, the river cleanup could use all the help it can get.
Andy Gilmore, a volunteer from Moody, said he’d been only working for 15 minutes picking up trash on Alabama 77 when he had to go get a new trash bag.
“It’s just about not caring, being lazy,” said Gilmore explaining how waterways become a target for litter. “People just aren’t educated on conservation and what it does to the environment.”
Amy Benson, a volunteer of Ragland, said she couldn’t believe what she found while picking up trash from the banks of the river.
“I mean, you can just see everything they leave here,” Benson said, pointing out a pile of water bottles. “We picked out a breakfast plate from Jack’s. Why wouldn’t you just eat that at the restaurant?”
Kathy Harvey, one of the program coordinators with the Chamber of Commerce, said she was happy to see so many high school-aged and younger volunteers come out Saturday.
“We’ve been talking about how you get people to stop throwing out their trash along the roads,” Harvey said. “We really want to start educating students in school.”
The chamber wants to make cleaning up the areas around Neely Henry Lake an annual event, but Harvey said she’d like to make the project even bigger.
“I’d like to see a countywide cleanup day,” Harvey said. “You can come to the water and clean up, or clean up your own yard, or the highway. Just get everybody involved.”
Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.