Over the past two decades, Alabama Power and other Southern Company employees, along with 115,000 volunteers, have improved waterways across the Southeast by removing more than 15 million pounds of trash. At Lake Martin alone, the effort has removed 105 tons of trash since 2006.
It all started on a spring day in 1999 when Gene Phifer looked out his window at Alabama Power’s Gadsden Steam Plant. He didn’t like what he saw: piles of litter along the banks of the nearby Coosa River.
Phifer shared his concern with fellow plant employees, and they decided something needed to be done. Soon, they’d organized about 20 employees for a cleanup that removed 3,000 pounds of trash from the Coosa River.
Phifer and that first group of volunteers had no way of knowing they’d birthed a movement, though Phifer did realize that just one cleanup wouldn’t be enough. He envisioned working with local leaders, businesses, civic groups and others to clean up the Coosa throughout Etowah County.
Later that summer, Alabama Power employees and other local stakeholders met at Gadsden City Hall to plan future cleanups. The first official “Renew the Coosa” cleanup took place in May 2000 with 500 volunteers who removed 28,000 pounds of trash and debris.
That one cleanup evolved from “Renew the Coosa” to “Renew Our Rivers” and grew into one of the nation’s largest river cleanups. Cleanups were added on Smith Lake and the Tallapoosa River, and the campaign eventually spread across Alabama and into Georgia, Mississippi and Florida.
Last year, 4,000 volunteers removed more than 268,000 pounds of trash from Alabama.
ROR cleanups are coordinated locally, and at Lake Martin, John Thompson has championed the effort for more than a decade. As president of Lake Martin Resource Association, Thompson lined up sponsors that could do more than simply write checks to support the effort: Alabama Power Company, Russell Lands On Lake Martin, Lake Martin Dock Company, Lake Martin TowBoatU.S., Wind Creek State Park, Tallapoosa County Commissioner Steve Robinson, Dirt Road Gourmet and Advanced Disposal all contribute equipment, employees’ time and specialized services to the success of the annual November cleanup.
“It really started clicking for us when we formed these partnerships, and these sponsors really turn out. It doesn’t matter how many dumpsters I ask Advanced Disposal for, they always give us what we need,” Thompson explained. “That has made it possible for us to pick up the big stuff. Until then, we were limited to just picking up cans and other trash that was small enough to be put in a bag.”
In addition, Thompson said, a corps of dedicated volunteers has gone above and beyond in the effort to clean up the trash. Some of them collect every weekend, clearing whole areas over time before moving upriver to clean the next slough.
“They’re passionate about it,” Thompson said.
As a result, some 2,000 or more volunteers have collected 105 tons of trash from Lake Martin roadways, shorelines, islands and sloughs over the last 13 years – including 9 tons of building debris that 179 volunteers collected following the 2011 tornados.
“That total tonnage does not include the tires that we have found. We did not include more than 400 rubber tires in that number because we have been able to recycle them through the efforts of County Commissioner Steve Robinson,” Thompson added.
When LMRA took on the effort at the request of Alabama Power Company in 2006, volunteers cleared areas where trash had accumulated for as long as 75 years. In one such area last year, volunteers were able to measure the difference their dedication has made.
Two years ago, Ken Holland, his wife Tanya and sister-in-law, Tammie McVickers, collected 20 bags of trash from one particular slough. When they returned to that area during last year’s two-day cleanup in November, their efforts yielded just two bags of trash.
“We have fun, and we made a difference,” Tanya Holland said.
“The collection amount really took off when volunteers started coming for a few weeks before the November Renew Our Rivers cleanup,” Thompson said. “They will go out for two or three weekends – some of them start earlier – and they will bag up trash in different areas and report the locations, and they’ll report big items, too. During the cleanup, when we have more hands on deck, other volunteers will go and pick up that trash and bring it back to the dumpsters.”
Over the years, dumpsites that included appliances, furniture and mattresses, as well as household trash, were cleaned from hard-to-access areas, and some kinds of trash that were plentiful when the program began – such as beaded Sytrofoam – now make only rare appearances in the shoreline trash cache that is collected through Alabama Power Company’s Renew Our Rivers program, Thompson said.
The 2018 cleanup yielded 20 tons of trash and recovered an abandoned sailboat that had languished on the shoreline for three years.
“I think we’ve pretty much gotten around to the whole lake and cleaned up the stuff that has been here for years,” Thompson said. “There are very few places now where we’ll find old cans. Last year, we collected 20 tons, and I don’t think we’ll bring in that much anymore – I sure hope we don’t.
“Most of the trash is going to be new from this point on, and it’s going to be left by people who are out enjoying the lake. That makes no sense.”
This local effort has grown from a few hardworking volunteers picking up trash to a point of community pride and an education opportunity for local schoolchildren, who enter an annual contest to design the Renew Our Rivers T-shirt each year. The contest is coordinated through elementary school art teachers, and students’ drawings are displayed in an exhibit at City Hall.
“When Alabama Power Company agreed to print those T-shirts for us, I don’t think they realized that eventually they would be printing 1,000 of them,” Thompson added.
Now in the 20th year of Renew Our Rivers, Alabama Power Company is celebrating the milestone. And what better way than with more cleanups? More than 30 cleanups have been planned across the state in 2019, from Cedar Bluff and Double Springs to Mobile, Demopolis, Eufaula and right here at Lake Martin.
Today, the commitment by Alabama Power employees to Renew Our Rivers continues to grow through partnerships that bring together Alabama Power Company employees, civic leaders, community volunteers, homeowner and boat owner organizations, students and other groups. These are the people that have made this effort truly sustainable. The campaign’s continued success is a testament to them and to their passion for protecting our state’s precious natural resources.
Renew Our Rivers has made a real difference in communities across the state by improving water quality and the health of lakes and rivers.
As we celebrate 20 years of cleaner rivers and lakes, we invite you to join all the partners at one or more of the cleanups scheduled this year. Learn more at www.alabamapower.com/renewourrivers.
The Lake Martin Renew Our Rivers event will take place the first weekend of November when the water has hit winter pool and more shoreline is exposed. To be a part of it, contact Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Comensky is Alabama Power’s vice president for Environmental Affairs.