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The last stage of the 3rd Annual Great Suwannee River Cleanup kicked off Saturday with 65 volunteers, putting in at Camp Azalea and Fowlers Bluff, collecting 2,860 pounds of garbage from a 6-mile stretch managed by the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.
Friends of LSNWR volunteer John Thalacker, of Cedar Key, said he's participated in the event each year since its inception in 2010.
"I do it because it's satisfying to make the world a better place. It's a beautiful river, and it gets marred by trash."
Thalacker was just one of 25 participants, donning rubber boots, gloves and plastic bags, at Camp Azalea Saturday morning. Volunteers from the Friends of the LSNWR, AMVETS Post. No. 422, in Chiefland, and the University of Florida's wetland club showed up to be dropped off by boats along the shores of the Suwannee, coming back in spurts over several hours with boatloads of tires, barrels, chunks of foam, bottles, cans and other debris.
In Florida, the Suwannee River, which originates in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, runs for 206 miles to the Gulf of Mexico and is one of only a few unaltered rivers left in the United States.
Still, its designation as a "wild" river has not kept it out of harms way. The river increasingly suffers from both a depletion in water from what no longer flows out of springs that once helped feed it and from an uptick in pollution from industry, agriculture and nearby cities.
But the banks of the river look a whole lot cleaner.
Fritzi Olson, executive director of Current Problems Inc., the organization that puts the event together each year, said the efforts of volunteers look as if they're starting to pay off.
In the first year of the event, 29,152 pounds of garbage was removed from the river from Florida's northern border to the mouth at the gulf, she said. Last year, 20,421 pounds was removed, and this year, not counting what was taken out at Saturday's cleanup, saw only 8,600 pounds of trash.
"We'd like to see that trash is going down," Olson said, explaining that the event in the future would be just to maintain what has been established by the cleanups.
But the numbers aren't conclusive, she said. This year's event, which started at the beginning of September, saw a reduction in cleanups along the Suwannee. Only about 2/3 of the 91 sections normally hit by volunteers were covered.
Olson said she's not sure why turnout was lower this year, though it could have been because of bad weather or because volunteers also included in the cleanup for the first time stretches along the Santa Fe and Withlacoochee rivers, two tributaries to the Suwannee.
"This was an odd year," she said. "First there was no water (due to drought and low water levels in the aquifer), and then it flooded." She said some of the garbage and debris may have been pushed out into the flood plains, rather than becoming trapped along the cypress knees and roots along the banks of the Suwannee.
Still, Olson said, she feels confident that the cleanup efforts are paying off. When Current Problems was first organized about 20 years ago, its focus was to clean up the Santa Fe River. The river was really "trashed out," Olson said. Early cleanups yielded tons of trash each year. "But now, it's a matter of maintenance."
Less trash is good for safety, wildlife and aesthetics, she said, but, more importantly, the event creates an awareness.
"You get people out there to see the problem. That has a bigger impact than any amount of brochures you can hand out. Generally speaking, whenever we have a cleanup, when somebody is doing it for the first time, they'll say something like 'Wow, I got a real eye opener.'"