Project AWARE brings people together for river clean-up

Participants paddle their canoes down the Maquoketa River during Project Aware July 11. A total of 391 volunteers pulled tires, scrap metal and trash out of the river during the event. (Photo by Pete Temple)

Volunteers Mary Hyland of Wadena (left) and Mark Johnston of Hiawatha sort garbage pulled from the river. (Photo by Pete Temple)

Pictured is Steve Veysey of Ames playing his guitar at Pictured Rocks Methodist Camp on July 11. Project AWARE camped overnight at Pictured Rocks. The mission for this year’s project is to clean up the Maquoketa River in Jones, Delaware and Jackson counties. The project was held from July 9 to 13. (Photo by Hannah Gray)

The six-day Project AWARE event this year collected many tires, scrap metal and appliances from the Maquoketa River. Coordinators and volunteers reported the most debris just below the Lake Delhi Dam. The debris stemmed from the 2010 dam breech. Here, many volunteers work together to tie debris down to safely get it downstream. (Photo submitted)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     A six-day canoe trip down the Maquoketa River from Manchester to Canton is not so much a recreational trip, but a statewide service project.

     July 8-13 was the 16th annual Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition). The event brings together hundreds of volunteers throughout the state, all in an effort to clean up Iowa’s rivers.

     There were almost 400 volunteers this year, traveling 63 miles of river via canoe. Project AWARE is the state’s largest volunteer river clean-up event. In addition to muscling trash out of the river, participants learn about watersheds, geology, archaeology, recycling and other natural resource topics.

     Aside from spending time in the river, several towns hosted the large group overnight, including Hopkinton and Monticello. Project AWARE spent the night on the grounds of Lenox College in Hopkinton on July 10, and at Pictured Rocks United Methodist Camp on July 11. The volunteers also spent their evenings taking part in educational programming. These programs highlighted local natural resources, history, and archaeology that make the Maquoketa River area unique.

     Brian Soenen, coordinator of Project AWARE, said this was their second time floating the Maquoketa River.

     “The event started on the Maquoketa in 2003,” he said, “so this in many ways was a homecoming.”

     Every year, the group is amazed at just how much is pulled out of the rivers throughout the state. This year, 224 tires were retrieved, along with 25,000 pounds of scrap metal.

     “I don’t have our trash numbers back from our trash coordinator yet,” said Soenen, “but we were able to recycle well over 50 percent of what we removed from the river.”

     Many of the materials found in the Maquoketa River included: tires, scrap metal, cans, bottles, and carpet. Soenen said unlike past years, they didn’t see many household appliances this year, “which is great!

     “There were a few fridges, freezers, and such, but not as many as we have seen in other clean-ups,” he added.

     Soenen and local Project AWARE volunteer Norm Zimmerman, of Monticello, both agreed that the worst part of the river was downstream of Lake Delhi, which breeched in 2010.

     “That area definitely had the most trash,” reported Soenen.

     He reported that volunteers pulled out three boat motors, several boatlifts, along with a few boats, too.

     “It’s been eight years since the 2010 flood that washed out the dam,” said Soenen. “So it’s good to finally get this stuff out of the flood plain.”

     Zimmerman, who has taken part on four Project AWARE trips, recalled seeing twisted metal removed from the river below the Delhi dam.

     “A lot of it was embedded in the riverbed,” he said. “There was a substantial amount of debris on Tuesday (July 10, when the group was below the dam).”

     Zimmerman took part this year with two of his granddaughters, ages 9 and 11, and David Cunningham of Stone City.

     River clean-ups like this, Soenen said, is more than just a clean-up event.

     “It’s an immersive experience that engages volunteers with the river and the resources found within its watershed,” he explained.

     Project AWARE not only connects people to the river, but with one another and the communities throughout Iowa.

     Zimmerman said the people in the overnight towns were very accommodating, especially those in Hopkinton. “They were very friendly and opened up the museum buildings for us to tour,” he said. “The children enjoyed seeing the history; it was very worthwhile.”

     The Maquoketa River Watershed Management Authority, which includes Jones County and the City of Monticello, expressed their appreciation of Project AWARE: “With over 63 miles of the Maquoketa River cleaned, the MR WMA sends out a big THANK YOU to ALL of the volunteers and organizers involved with the 16th annual Project AWARE! We appreciate your partnership in helping to improve the water quality and habitat areas of our watershed.”

     Zimmerman and other volunteers feel Project AWARE is an important event. “We need to leave this world in a better place than we received it,” said Zimmerman. “It’s appalling to see how much stuff is left behind. It’s important to show my grandchildren how to take care of the earth; this is the only one left.”

     For more on Project AWARE, visit



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