What started as one employee’s effort to clean up a small portion of the Coosa River in Alabama is now a massive annual river system cleanup effort involving thousands of volunteers and spanning four states.
By Douglas H. Powell and Tanya D. Blalock
While working at Alabama Power Company’s Gadsden steam plant on the Coosa River, Gene Phifer was dismayed by the amount of trash and litter at the water intake and along the nearby river banks. To deal with this situation, Phifer organized a small group of plant employees to clean up the shoreline next to the facility. In August 1999, the group removed about 2,000 pounds of litter and man-made debris.
Seeing the results of the cleanup around the Gadsden facility made Phifer aware of the litter lining the banks of the Coosa River as far as he could see. He decided a comprehensive approach was needed to restore the entire river.
In January 2000, Phifer organized a meeting to discuss a river-wide cleanup program, called “Renew the Coosa.” Phifer invited a group of Alabama Power employees; local city, county, and state governmental agencies; concerned citizens; local businesses; and Keep Etowah Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful. The Coosa River flows through the city of Gadsden, in Etowah County, and is an integral part of the community.
The result of this meeting was a unified commitment to clean up the river. Renew the Coosa would be a community- and river-wide approach, with volunteers coordinated to clean up along sections of H. Neely Henry Reservoir. This reservoir impounds water for Alabama Power’s 72.9-MW H. Neely Henry hydro facility and serves as the water source for the Gadsden plant.
Beginning the river cleanup
The Renew the Coosa program began in May 2000. More than 500 volunteers assisted in removing more than 28,000 pounds of trash and debris from the H. Neely Henry Reservoir.
The system-wide river cleanup concept quickly spread throughout the company. During 2000, employees working near other Alabama Power reservoirs on the Coosa, Black Warrior, and Tallapoosa rivers began helping to organize cleanup efforts with volunteer groups. The efforts resulted in the removal of a total of about 87,000 pounds of trash and debris from these waterways.
At that time, Alabama Power was undergoing relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for nine hydroelectric developments on the Black Warrior and Coosa rivers. These developments are: 157.5-MW Smith and 52.4-MW Bankhead on the Black Warrior River and 87.75-MW Weiss, H. Neely Henry, 128.25-MW Logan Martin, 177-MW Lay, 170-MW Mitchell, 225-MW Bouldin, and 100-MW Jordan on the Coosa River. These developments represent more than 70 percent of Alabama Power’s total hydroelectric capacity of 1,620 MW.
As part of this relicensing process, all the major stakeholder groups concerned about the reservoirs along the Coosa and Black Warrior rivers were identified. Alabama Power recognized that these and other stakeholder groups for its projects were an ideal resource to tap for volunteers to continue the cleanup efforts. To broaden the potential volunteer base, company employees also identified lake associations on the Tallapoosa River in Alabama. Alabama Power then approached all these groups to initiate cleanups or to partner on established cleanups. Because of these efforts, trash removed from the rivers tripled — to more than 285,000 pounds in 2001.
The next year, the cleanup program expanded across state lines. Based on the success of the program in Alabama waterways, employees at Georgia Power Company’s Hammond steam plant initiated their first cleanup on the upper Coosa River. Alabama Power and Georgia Power are subsidiaries of Southern Company. Due in part to these cooperative efforts, a combined 524,000 pounds of trash was removed from rivers in Alabama and Georgia in 2002.
At the end of 2002, Keep America Beautiful recognized the Renew the Coosa program with an award for litter prevention.
Expanding to other rivers, states
In 2003, the various cleanup efforts in Alabama and Georgia were merged into one program, called “Renew Our Rivers.” This new name better reflected the expanded magnitude of the cleanups. During that year, employees at Alabama Power and Georgia Power generating facilities that had not held cleanups in the past began initiating cleanup efforts or partnering with existing efforts. In all, more than 2,600 volunteers removed more than 985,000 pounds of litter and man-made debris from the rivers in 2003.
That year, the Renew Our Rivers program received more awards. The Alabama Wildlife Federation named Alabama Power “Water Conservationist of the Year” for its role in the Renew Our Rivers program. In addition, the program was recognized during presentation of the Alabama Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards, the state’s most prestigious conservation honor. And, Georgia Power’s Hammond steam plant received Keep America Beautiful’s first place award for its efforts to clean up the upper Coosa River.
With help from community volunteers, efforts to clean up waterways in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida have resulted in the removal of more than 7.5 million pounds of litter and man-made debris in seven years.
As the effort gained momentum in 2003, cleanups were being organized during two time periods a year, one in the spring and one in the fall. This was done in part to allow better use of the company’s larger boats for removal of big trash items such as refrigerators and tires. Use of the equipment could be scheduled better if the cleanup was not clustered around one time period.
In 2004, employees at Mississippi Power Company, another subsidiary of Southern Company, became involved in the Renew Our Rivers program. Employees began cleanups in coastal Mississippi on the Okatoma River and Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. That year, the overall program accomplished the removal of more than 1.5 million pounds of litter and man-made debris. In 2004, Keep Georgia Beautiful recognized Georgia Power as Business Partner of the Year for cleanup initiatives, including Renew Our Rivers.
By 2005, a total of nearly 3.4 million pounds of litter and man-made debris had been removed from waterways in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Renew Our Rivers organizers decided to set a goal for the 2005 cleanup of reaching a cumulative total of 5 million pounds of trash removed. This meant 1.6 million pounds of trash would need to be removed in 2005. The slogan for the year was “5 in 05.”
Two key factors helped make this goal achievable. First, thousands of volunteers had become involved, providing plenty of manpower. Second, Southern Company generation plants had become the focal points of the cleanup efforts and served as a base of operations for manpower and equipment.
Amazingly, the 2005 cleanup surpassed its goal of 5 million pounds by more than 550,000 pounds!
In 2005, Rivers Alive, a Georgia non-profit organization dedicated to river cleanup awareness, recognized Georgia Power with the Outstanding Business Leadership Award.
During 2006, the Renew Our Rivers program expanded to the entire Southern Company service area, with a cleanup by Gulf Power, a Southern Company subsidiary in northwest Florida. More than 75 volunteers removed more than 16,000 pounds of trash from coastal waterways in the Pensacola area during a three-day effort. In addition, employees at Southern Nuclear Plant Farley (a subsidiary of Southern Company), located along the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, held their first cleanup on this river.
The slogan for that year’s cleanup effort, “A New Beginning in 2006,” was a tribute to the Gulf Coast residents who suffered massive devastation from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
In October 2006, employees from Alabama Power, Georgia Power, and Mississippi Power joined local civic and governmental agencies from south Mississippi and non-profit organization Living Lands and Waters for a special Renew Our Rivers cleanup in south Mississippi. More than 300 volunteers spent three days removing 66,000 pounds of trash from debris areas left in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
By fall 2006, the cumulative total of litter and man-made debris removed from the waterways in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida reached more than 7.5 million pounds!
Also in 2006, removal events were being organized by various environmental groups along the tributaries and watershed area of the Black Warrior and Coosa rivers. Village Creek and Locust Fork were two small tributaries of the Black Warrior River in the Birmingham, Ala., area that held cleanups. In addition, a county-wide Coosa River watershed cleanup effort took place in Etowah County near Gadsden, Ala.
Southern Company received additional awards for its cleanup efforts. Southern Company Generation received the first place award in litter prevention from Keep America Beautiful, for its role in spreading this cleanup to a four-state area. And the National Hydropower Association recognized Southern Company with a 2007 Outstanding Stewardship of America’s Waters award for its efforts in 2006 related to the Renew Our Rivers program.
For 2007, the Renew Our Rivers goal is to remove a cumulative total of 11 million pounds of litter and debris. The motto of this year’s efforts is “Toward 11 in 2007.” In addition, plans are under way to expand the scope of the program by increasing the number of cleanups and the public participation. Fox 6 WBRC-TV in Birmingham is a sponsor of Renew Our Rivers and provides television coverage before and after the events. This has created large public awareness. New brochures are being planned to help provide additional background information. All the events in the four states receive local newspaper coverage.
Removing large abandoned items from the rivers would make the cleanup task seem almost impossible for volunteers. Southern Company employees remove these large items before the volunteer cleanup days begin.
In addition, Renew Our Rivers coordinators for Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Mississippi Power, and Gulf Power have discussed a system-wide education program geared toward elementary school students. A coloring book, Message in the Bottle — A River Adventure, was produced by Alabama Power for use by Keep Etowah Beautiful’s anti-litter program in Etowah County. The book also has been made available for use in areas in Alabama where cleanups have taken place.
Results and lessons learned
While removal of debris from the waterways is the focus and goal of the Renew Our Rivers program, an equally meaningful accomplishment is the community relations that have developed and grown from this program. Having employees who work at the power generating facilities and lake management, environmental, and business offices involved in planning and implementing these river cleanups puts a personal face on a large corporation. The daily job of generating electricity is a primary value to the community, but these cleanups are a tangible way to demonstrate a company’s personal commitment to improving the environment.
From a logistical standpoint, the success of Renew Our Rivers can be attributed to its simple and straightforward approach. Many of the waterways had never had cleanups. At first, the amount of trash to remove seemed insurmountable. To make the efforts manageable, coordinators for Renew Our Rivers cleanups targeted specific areas of the waterways. Before deploying volunteers, the coordinators performed reconnaissance work to determine the efforts needed throughout the river. In many cases there were large items — such as abandoned refrigerators, freezers, and tires — that would make the task seem almost impossible for volunteers. Using barges and work boats, company volunteers removed these bulky items before the community volunteers arrived. The reconnaissance and preparatory efforts also allowed the coordinators to efficiently deploy community volunteers when they arrived.
The term KISS — Keep It Simple and Safe — was applied to the cleanup efforts. The quickest way to discourage volunteers is to make their task difficult and confusing. While removing litter, volunteers needed to be safe. Southern Company Generation staff held safety briefings before cleanup events, stressing the importance of wearing proper clothing and footwear and using protective equipment, such as gloves and safety glasses. The use of sunscreen and insect repellant also was stressed.
The planners realized that a single cleanup of a particular waterway would not solve the litter problem. It had taken years of neglect for the trash to accumulate, and it would take numerous cleanups to remove it. On the positive side, the partner organizations were unanimous in their desire to make the cleanups annual or, in some cases, semi-annual events. The cleanups are now regularly scheduled grassroots efforts, with enthusiastic volunteers who turn out every time. The number of volunteers has increased with each cleanup. The commitment of the volunteers is the primary reason behind the significant, sustainable improvements that can be seen on the targeted waterways.
The most rewarding and obvious result of the cleanup efforts has been the removal of more than 7.5 million pounds of litter and man-made debris to date. Because of the continuing removal, there are far fewer large items like abandoned refrigerators, freezers, hot water heaters, boats, and tires found on waterways that have been targeted for cleanups. The amount of smaller trash also is showing a marked decline, perhaps because the public cleanup efforts are dissuading individuals from further dumping. In addition, the reduction in litter and the increase in volunteers is allowing the coverage of much larger river areas during the cleanup efforts.
The Renew Our Rivers program is a model for private-public partnerships. The program brings together not only employees but a diverse group of stakeholders for a common goal of removing trash from the waterways. This partnership includes employees from union to management and stakeholders such as homeowner/boat owner associations, schools and civic associations, and environmental, state, and federal agencies.
In addition to private-public partnerships, the Renew Our Rivers program is innovative in its coordination of employees across four states and four operating companies working together to improve their communities. Although the details of each cleanup vary, the employees share their keys to success, seek opportunities for involvement, and celebrate their common achievements. The generating facilities are viewed as part of their communities, and their commitment has been instrumental in gaining the grassroots support of local communities.
The growth of Renew Our Rivers has been phenomenal. What started in 1999 as one employee’s vision has become a coordinated river system cleanup program involving thousands of volunteers and encompassing four states.
Mr. Powell may be reached at Alabama Power Company, P.O. Box 2641, Birmingham, AL 35291; (1) 205-664-6189; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms. Blalock may be reached at Georgia Power Company, 241 Ralph McGill Boulevard, Atlanta, GA 30308-3374; (1) 404-506-7026; E-mail: tdblaloc@ southernco.com.
Doug Powell is staff environmental specialist for Alabama Power Company. Tanya Blalock is environmental manager, water programs, for Georgia Power Company. Doug and Tanya coordinate the Renew Our Rivers program for their respective companies.