The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) yet. Despite everything, they are still hosting the Euclid River Day Stream Cleanup on June 20, 2020—with a few modifications to protect their volunteers.
“Bring your own pen to sign in,” explains Euclid Creek Watershed Program Manager Elizabeth Hiser, and SWCD will issue everything else needed to clean up a waterway: gloves, a set of pickers, and plenty of bags. Because cleanups are socially distant activities by nature—volunteers typically meander on their own paths finding garbage in a wide area—this program needs only modest changes to meet the guidelines of proper social distancing. The most notable change is in the size of the event. In the past, this type of gathering has attracted up to 35 people. Now, in order to meet the Metropark’s pandemic safety guidelines, only the first 9 volunteers can sign up to attend this SWCD staff-led event in person.
What Can Everyone Else Do?
If you’re the 10th or the 100th person wishing to sign up, the good news is that you can still participate. SWCD is turning this event into a virtual challenge for the first time and extending the single-day cleanup into a 10-day marathon event. You can help make it a success by simply doing a cleanup wherever you are. According to SWCD, “No contribution is too small – the example that is set by taking the time to collect even a single piece of litter can contribute to developing a region-wide ethic of stewardship and a shared sense of ownership of our beloved, outdoor spaces.”
Program Manager Hiser encourages folks to keep track of the quantity and type of litter collected and to submit that information to SWCD using the form on Facebook and taking photos so SWCD can compile the data. Through a partnership with Kent State University, data collected will also be parsed and studied to help guide future restoration efforts. “For example,” Hiser says, “if we find a lot of golf balls, that informs us on where to focus our energy.” In order for this approach to work, they need the help of residents across the entire watershed.
What’s a Watershed Anyway?
A watershed is a naturally occurring feature of topography, like a big basin that catches and moves water through any given area of land. Ohio has plenty more beyond the Euclid Creek watershed, and all of them need active care. You can find your watershed here.
As water moves through its watershed in the form of rain, snow, groundwater, or runoff from human activities, it carries with it lots of litter and waste. When people remove the trash floating around on the surface, that helps keep the ultimate destination of that watershed clean. In the case of these northeast Ohio watersheds, we’re talking about Lake Erie. Every time a person picks up litter in their backyard or park, it makes our lake a little cleaner and safer.
River Days Past, Present, and Future
River Day has been part of how northeast Ohioans mark each passing summer for 30 years. When it started in 1990, it was seen as a way to engage people in understanding the recovery of the Cuyahoga River after its practical death in the late ‘60s. In the epic 1991 River Day cleanup, dozens of junked cars were hauled out of the river and lined along its banks.
This year, River Day has been moved from its former date in May to more closely align with the anniversary of the final fire on the Cuyahoga in June of 1969, the one that changed everything. The ’69 fire was covered in TIME Magazine, and it jolted America into action on environmental issues. The landmark Clean Water Act and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came into being out of the awareness born of this fire.
Today, environmental regulations and the federal agency designed to implement them are under constant strain. The current administration has waged war on environmental protection from the very earliest days. The legacy of the Stokes brothers, Ohio’s chapter in environmental history, is under threat. By reversing many and not enforcing many other environmental protections, the Trump EPA is cutting Ohio’s proudest legacy down little by little.
In 2020, both environmental justice and racial justice are coming more clearly into focus, and the connections between the two appear more obvious than ever. SWCD Director Janine Rybka laments the fact that some 36% of people living in poverty today live near a legacy brownfield, and thus absorb the worst of our system of wasteful consumerism and pollution. It also means that black and brown children are more often endangered than their white counterparts, making leadership and input from these communities urgently needed.
Cuyahoga SWCD Invites You, Diverse Ohioans, All of You
Director Rybka acknowledges systemic racism head-on. “The conservation field is predominantly white,” she says. “We want to increase diversity, involving the whole community and young people into conservation.” Rybka knows that involving more conservationists of color can be a challenge. Not everyone has a computer, an internet connection, or a smartphone. And that’s why Rybka’s ultimate message to Ohioans is simply “Get involved.” That involvement can be participating virtually via Facebook or all on your own in your neighborhood or yard. What matters most to Rybka is getting more people involved in the process of conservation. “No matter what you do, just be involved.”
With so many people pushed into virtual spaces due to the pandemic and a generation of Americans who are accustomed to using their cell phones as tools of activism, it’s time to offer more ways to engage young conservationists in communities most affected by environmental injustice. Allowing for engagement via social media, especially with photos, may be a way to expand their reach and impact.
“Everything in this world—people, money systems, environment—is connected,” says Rybka. “We might be individual, but we’re all part of the solution.” So get involved in River Day this year in whatever way you can, even if that means simply telling someone you know about the importance of cleaning up the watershed you live in, in your own backyard.