Getting Dirty and Keeping Our Rivers Clean

Text by Kristin Bartschi and photos by George Sutherland

Recent ARMN Basic Training graduates Kristin Bartschi and George Sutherland joined in a very satisfying service activity on the Potomac River. Kristin’s observations demonstrate how they could get wet and dirty and provide a valuable service at the same time.

There’s nothing I love more than finding new and exciting ways to get outdoors. A few weeks ago, my husband, George, and I heard about a kayak cleanup run by EcoAction Arlington. Volunteers would kayak around the Potomac and fish trash out of the water. What an awesome way to get outside and clean our local river at the same time!

According to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, the Potomac provides about 486 million gallons of drinking water every day to people in the DC metro area. The health of the river has improved drastically in the last few years, but polluted runoff, deforestation, and attacks on water protections threaten to reverse that progress.

Our local storm drains carry rain and other drainage away from streets and into local waterways. This means that anything that washes down a storm drain enters our rivers and streams, and eventually is water we will end up drinking! Keeping our waterways clean helps us all—plants, animals, and people too.

The last Saturday in July, we arrived at the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria at 8:00 a.m. Over 40 volunteers were there. After a brief presentation by EcoAction Arlington and a safety demonstration from the Washington Sailing Marina staff, we were ready to get into our kayaks and clean up some trash! 

People launch kayaks from a wooden dock
Volunteers set off on their kayaks at the start of the cleanup.
Volunteers stand on mud flats on the river. There are kayaks in the water.
A group of volunteers collects trash off the mud flats.

It was a beautiful, sunny day to be paddling around the Potomac. George and I kayaked deep into the Four Mile Run tributary. The water glistened with a film of pollution as we collected plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and beer cans from the riverbank.

A woman in a kayak pulls trash from vegetation along the river bank
Pulling trash from the riverbank on Four Mile Run tributary.

We waved to a group of fisherman casting lines beneath an overpass and were cheered on by a friendly cyclist, urging us to, “Keep up the good work!”

A kayaker paddles beneath a bridge covered in graffiti
Paddling beneath the overpass along Four Mile Run.

When we paddled back towards the marina, we noticed a commotion along the mud flats. We pulled up to investigate and see if we could help. A group of volunteers had found an old mattress onshore and were busy cutting it into pieces with a box-cutter so that it could be divided onto the kayaks returning to the marina. We each took our share and headed back in with our bags of trash in tow.

With the help of the kind folks at the marina, we clambered onto the dock and hauled our trash onshore. We were sweaty, muddy, and tired, but together our group had pulled 85 bags of trash from the Potomac!

If you’d like to get dirty and help out your local waterways, look for a cleanup in your area! EcoAction Arlington will be hosting a clean-up at Barcroft Park and Four Mile Run on Saturday, September 21 from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. as part of the International Coastal Cleanup. Some other groups that sponsor periodic cleanups both on the water and onshore include: Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, and Potomac Conservancy. Contact them if you’d like to combine your river experience with valuable clean-up work!