Saving rivers through adoption



United States
44° 56' 33.5868" N, 93° 5' 55.7664" W

People volunteer in the Adobt-A-River program to clear Minnesota rivers.

Adopt-A-River director Paul Nordell

Great feelings of accomplishment.

Right footed shoes are the most common item found along rivers.

As Paul Nordell examined the mud-encrusted pop can he had just pried loose from amid the trash scattered along the riverbank in downtown Minneapolis, he heard and felt a slight rustling in the can. Cutting it open he was suddenly eyeball to eyeball with a Mississippi River crayfish! He quickly freed the canned crustacean that had crawled into the small can opening, found it most suitable and then had grown too large to get back out.

That incident is just one of many on the list of unusual finds throughout the 25-year history of Minnesota DNR’s Adopt-A-River program for which Paul is the program coordinator.

“It’s a ‘Bag and Glove’ program,” says Nordell, “cleaning up what you can physically see.” Projects are carried out by volunteers who address the problem of rubbish and other pollutants by physically removing trash from along the shore of adopted rivers.

            Nordell says everything eventually ends up in the waterways.  No polluted water flows into the state, therefore pollution in lakes or streams originated from within Minnesota. And while pollution from discharge pipes and sewer outfalls has gone down since the passing of the U.S. Clean Water Act in 1972, the need to clean up our rivers continues.

Twenty-five years ago, says Nordell, there was a “curb side mentality” about water once it washed down into the sewers.

“Water was looked at as a hydraulic waste disposal system,” he said. “Now there’s a new attitude towards water,” he says. “ The light has been coming on that water needs to be taken care of; rivers are worthy of protection rather than dumping into.”

The most significant achievement of the program that started in 1989 is that it has proven to be “a ‘hands-on’ opportunity for people to protect water resources,” says Nordell. “The light is coming on – they didn’t get it 25 years ago – they get it now.”

The most noticeable improvements on a state river have been along the Twin Cities stretch of the Mississippi. “It’s the most exposed river,” says Nordell, “and therefore with a new mindset, it is the most improved and has had the most impact on the area.”

The counterpoints of that river’s success are the number of “uncelebrated” waterways that still need the most help, a network Nordell defines as “those unnamed creeks – no high profile, the stow-away places.” He says if you follow the ravines and “places in between” you’ll find areas in need of clean-up.

Oftentimes issues associated with trash, pollution and other forms of water degradation cross physical boundary lines, and among several agencies on multiple levels.  Several thousand inner tubers on the Otter Tail River over the July 4th weekend and old salvage/junk yards in river floodplains are some of the many problems associated with keeping rivers clean that require a cooperative effort.

On the lighter side of the Adopt-A-River program, are some of its memorable surprises and trivia.

“We found a message in a bottle once, and one of the art sculptures made from retrieved junk includes an airplane door found in the river.”

 His favorite factoid is that more right shoes are found than left ones. “But, in 25 years, they’ve never found a matching pair!” he chuckled.

Nordell’s role with the DNR also engages him with the National Park Service’s “Big River Journey” program for kids. In a CSI-like “Crime Lab” approach to investigating and identifying river trash and its origins, 4th-6th graders learn about causes and affects of pollution. Sometimes the instructors will don sunglasses and lab coats and engage the students in forensic-like probes into different ‘evidence’. To date, over  55,000 students have participated in the Big River Journey program.

Nordell says that it’s not just about rivers. Ponds and other watershed projects can be adopted, too. Other ways to volunteer include working at the state fair and through Storm Drain Stenciling – a program where volunteers affix warning labels onto flowage sources going directly into a water body.

Even if one can’t volunteer or adopt a river, Nordell says an individual can still make a difference. “Always leave the shoreline a little better than when you arrived,” he said. “If you do this, others are likely to notice and to join you in your cleanup efforts.” He says research has shown that cleaner sites are known to generate lower levels of rubbish accumulation. Like Nordell said, “ The light is coming on, perhaps we are starting to get it – they get it now!”

 (An overview of all components of the Adopt-A-River program are explained thoroughly on the website

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