It’s been a long, two-year respite from Renew Our Rivers (ROR), and Mike Clelland is “more than ready” to return to his old stomping grounds.
On Friday and Saturday, March 4-5, Clelland restarts Alabama Power’s efforts to rid the state’s lakes of litter. As coordinator for ROR, the Southeast’s largest lake cleanup program, Clelland will work in the eighth annual Lake Eufaula cleanup, co-sponsored by Friends of Eufaula.
Alabama Power on March 5 will also supply cleanup materials for the Valley Creek biannual spring cleanup, sponsored by Jefferson County, Bessemer and other municipalities.
Clelland, who has led Alabama Power’s ROR program for eight years, is excited about returning to the lakes. He has completed logistics for 32 statewide lake cleanups planned for 2022. While most cleanups are in central Alabama, much of the work extends beyond the company’s footprint.
“We’re spread out – even on the Alabama River and in some areas where we don’t have power facilities – we still have an interest in getting people involved,” said Clelland, Environmental Affairs specialist at Alabama Power for 15 years. “We will partner with the Army Corps of Engineers, PALS and other groups in some cleanups. Anywhere outside the Tennessee Valley, we’ll pretty much be involved in cleanups.”
Clelland is ready to begin the 2022 ROR season.
“I think that relationships have strengthened immensely because, during the two off years we had because of the pandemic, we were able to still stay in touch with these folks,” Clelland said. “Some groups just wanted to check in and see where things were. They told me, ‘I can’t wait to get back out on the river.’
“It definitely shows there’s a good relationship between the stakeholders and the company because of the relationships I’ve personally seen over the last couple of years when we didn’t work side by side,” he said. “That’s why I’m looking forward to this year, when we’ll actually get out and work side by side in public with a lot of these community partners.”
About a dozen cleanups were held in 2021 by large lake associations, which removed about 75 tons of trash. Volunteers were able to social distance while working outdoors. As in past years, Alabama Power supplied materials to remove trash and debris from the shores and watershed.
“We didn’t miss a beat in being able to provide for those that could and did do cleanups, providing materials – shirts, trash bags, gloves and pick-up sticks or trash grabbers,” Clelland said. “Despite the pandemic, people still had a good attitude. They all wanted to continue to do it. We’re looking forward to this year.”
Protecting Alabama’s water and its future
Clelland enjoys a little bit of everything about being out on the lakes.
“Alabama is blessed with water, a natural attribute, and we need to take care of it,” he said. “When I’m out on the water, it reminds me how fortunate we have it where we live in this state because we have so much fresh water compared to the rest of the country.
“Alabama also has more species of fish and other animals than any other state in the country,” added Clelland, who did summer internships for Environmental Affairs while studying at Auburn University. “Being able to be a part of that is something that I stop and reflect on, when you actually get out on the water. We have a responsibility to help keep it clean. Our program raises awareness in folks – especially younger folks – and gets them involved at a young age.”
He sees the ROR program as an opportunity to raise awareness about the need for litter prevention, as well.
“We all pull up in these big, paved parking lots and see trash there, but we didn’t see how it got there,” Clelland said. “I think education at a really young age is about the only way to change people’s minds on that.”
While most of the larger items have been removed from the lakes – water heaters, appliances and tires – volunteers continue to rake in lots of plastic bottles.
“Some lakes that we’ve worked on, we’ve seen trash migrate to other areas of the lake that we might not have worked on in the past,” he said. “We’ve seen the amount of trash decline in areas that we’ve hit. From that, I can tell we’re making a difference because those other areas that we already cleaned up aren’t filling back up.”
Through the years, Clelland has seen a little of everything removed from the waters.
“Probably the thing that amazes me the most is seeing a prosthetic leg,” he said, with a chuckle. “We’ve found wheelchairs, toilets, things that you think, ‘Why did this even get thrown in there? How did it float?’ Basically, if it’s been made by a human, we have found it. Every item you can imagine, we have probably found it.”
A lot of debris is carried in by floods, Clelland believes. Many times, items are found above the normal edge of the water, up in the woods, where they obviously washed in.
He hopes this year’s cleanup will proceed without any shutdowns due to the pandemic.
“I’d like to see all the groups get together and be able to have a good time and remove trash,” Clelland said. “The biggest thing is to get back together. We haven’t been able to do that. It’s been a long time coming.”