In the fall of 1988, Nancy Brice, Larry Clark and Christine Hunt had no idea what they were starting, and no way to envision the impact of what was — at the time — a tiny volunteer effort.
“There was a group of about 12 of us who were fed up with all of the trash along the river,” says Hunt, the Tennessee Aquarium’s lead horticulturist. “Downtown was just an ugly, trashy mess and we decided it was time to do something about it.”
Their plan to address the situation, the inaugural Tennessee River Rescue, was modeled after a successful shoreline cleanup effort in Louisiana.
That first year, the volunteers had their work cut out for them covering two zones in two days.
“When it started raining in 1988, after a four-year drought in the Tennessee Valley, all of the garbage that collected in the watershed washed into the TVA reservoir system,” recalls Larry Clark, a retired TVA manager of water quality. “The refuse would collect behind the dams and get sluiced over the spillways, traveling from dam to dam. Some media photos of this armada of trash flowing downstream caught the attention of our director, and we immediately implemented changes to improve conditions.”
Mr. Clark joined the first Tennessee River Rescue by organizing a group of TVA employees to clean a stretch of the river on Nickajack Lake. From 1988 to 2001, he inspired a small army to join the effort, including high school students from Marion County and South Pittsburg.
“By 2001, we had more than 100 volunteers in that zone alone,” he says.
Now in its 30th year, Mr. Clark continues to contribute to the River Rescue and now leads the East Ridge cleanup zone. Since 2002, volunteers in that zone have improved conditions around Camp Jordan and Spring Creek.
“We’ve taken more than 470 tires out of a three-mile stretch of Spring Creek,” he says. “We have removed a lot of the legacy trash — the big items that have been there for years — but we still have to deal with a lot of Styrofoam and plastic cups, plastic bottles and illegally dumped household waste.”
Nancy Brice’s involvement in the Rescue began while she was working for the Chattanooga Nature Center. The first year her team collected items from the banks of Cummings Bottom by canoe, transferring the items to a motorboat for removal to a dumpster. By the end of an entire day of trips “from sunrise to sunset,” they collected 56 tires.
“By the time I got home, I was so tired I could barely hold my head up and was covered from head to toe in mud,” Ms. Brice says. “But I was hooked. I knew I’d be back to do it again for as long as necessary.”
On Saturday, Oct. 6, this trio of water warriors will celebrate the remarkable milestone of participating in their 30th Tennessee River Rescue. While it sprang forth from humble beginnings, the cleanup has produced lasting results and now engages more than 800 volunteers a year from Bradley, Hamilton and Marion counties.
“We never dreamed we’d be doing this for 30 years,” Ms. Brice says. “We hope we’re not doing this 30 years from now, but somebody may have to if people continue to trash our river.”
Security cameras, crack downs on illegal dumping, and years of Tennessee River Rescue volunteerism and awareness are making a difference in the health of area rivers and streams. Even though she’s not seeing as many big items — furniture, appliances, tires, and mattresses — along the river, Ms. Hunt cautions that a recent threat is growing whose impact could be just as devastating, if more invisibly.
“Concentrating on plastic pollution is the key to our future,” she says. “We need to remind people about this problem and encourage them to reduce their use of single-use plastics.”
After 30 years of cleanups, Mr. Clark is perhaps most proud of creating a spirit of community pride in caring for the environment.
“We’ve created a sense of responsibility for the future,” he says. “One of the reasons people come back each year is because they feel a responsibility to take some time, to donate one day each year, to helping clean up the water.”
The 30th annual Tennessee River Rescue is Saturday, Oct. 6, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. For zone locations and information on volunteering, visit tennesseeriverrescue.org or “like” Tennessee River Rescue on Facebook.