How 1,000 volunteers save the Blue River from itself each year

If you ask Vicki Richmond about Project Blue River Rescue, her enthusiasm seeps through the phone. “What can I tell you about Blue River Rescue?” she says. “You mean, other than that it is, the bomb?

This gigantic project in the heart of Kansas City is just one year younger than Stream Team itself. Volunteers have done a ton (or 1,875+ tons) of work in that time:

  • 15,000 people
  • 50,000 volunteer hours
  • Rescued 30,000 tires
  • Planted 35,400 trees
  • Removed 6 acres of bush honeysuckle
  • Picked up 1,875 tons of trash

What are they rescuing the Blue River from?

Itself, Vicki says. “The Blue River is very much a wastewater and stormwater stream,” she explains. “Brush Creek–the largest Missouri-side tributary to the Blue–has earned the nickname ‘Flush Creek’ in Kansas City. Because of rapid development in the headwaters, it’s just beat.”

Although much of the waterway is now contained in culverts, Blue River was once much mightier. “Daniel Boone couldn’t get across it during his travels,” Vicki says. “He had to go around. The Battle of Westport was on its banks. It’s really historic, and that’s another reason to preserve it.” 

Historic, 1900s postcard of a yacht club on the Blue River in Kansas City.
Historic, 1900s postcard of a yacht club on the Blue River in Kansas City.

History of Project Blue River Rescue and the Power of Partnerships

Stream Team #175 was simply founded by “a teacher and a guy that liked the creek— Carroll Rinker and Lloyd Davies,” Vicki says. “We call him our Lloyd and Master, to be honest.” The project began as two cleanups, one in the spring and one in the fall, and has since focused on one cleanup in early April, based out of Lakeside Nature Center.

“Because it was all new territory, we started removing these historic dumps that were full of cars and households,” she says. “You can see some dump sites from Google Earth.” Lloyd got the National Guard to participate as a training exercise with cranes.

Dump site in the Blue River floodplain.
Dump site in the Blue River floodplain.

In 2000, the National Guard pulled out of the project, and the organizers needed a new heavy hauler. “We said, ‘Who’s got cranes and dozers?’ The city! The city needs to care about this.” When Vicki asked the city for help, she says, “I was young and stupid and didn’t know better, but they listened. Then when parks equipment wasn’t enough, they called public works.”

A volunteer surveys litter encrusting the Blue River. The annual Blue River Rescue is always the first weekend in April.
A volunteer surveys litter encrusting the Blue River. The annual Blue River Rescue is always the first weekend in April.

“The city does have to pay overtime for staff to drive these trucks, but with trash trucks that generally come with a driver and two guys, we [PBRR crew] are the two guys that throw the trash in,” Vicki says. “And then we give the drivers an apple, granola bar, pop and a t-shirt. People put in for that overtime way before the cleanup. It’s amazing the buy-in that we’ve gotten everywhere.”

Partnerships are the power of the project, she says. “If a group can’t participate one year, that’s ok, because a different group got larger. If a partner can’t fund one year, someone else will pick up the slack.” The organization doesn’t even send out mailings to advertise; It justs relies on word of mouth and its long history to draw volunteers. This method works because PBRR works. Here’s how:

Project Blue River Rescue’s three secrets to massive urban river cleanups:

1.) Develop a hierarchy. The planners have divided the river into four sections, each with 25+ individual work sites. Then they also break leaders into manageable chunks:

  • Site leaders are responsible for one site of about 25 volunteers
  • Section leaders are in charge of 3-4 contiguous or connected sites
  • Planning staff manage all the sections, and Vicki runs communication between the cleanup and city services.

On the day of the cleanup, they split the sign-in table into “child-friendly” groups and “adult-friendly” groups. Once a site is filled with 25 people, it’s off the table and new volunteers start filling the next space.  

2.) Give each site its own identity. Volunteers aren’t dispatched to cold, lifeless places like “Site 1” or “Site 43.” Nope, Blue River Rescue gives each spot its own name or historic identity. “People care a lot about ‘Russel’s Fort Crossing,’ or ‘The Wall’ or ‘The Gulch’ or ‘Wildcat Hollow,” Vicki says. “I think that helps people identify more with their site that way.” When there aren’t enough historic names to go around, they just make it up. That’s ok, too.

Trash and litter floating in the Blue River. Between Stream Team #175 and local fly fishers, the river is fully adopted from the state line to 63rd street in Kansas City.
Trash and litter floating in the Blue River. Between Stream Team #175 and local fly fishers, the river is fully adopted from the state line to 63rd street in Kansas City.

3.) Scout it. Scout it good. It’s necessary to know what to expect on Blue River’s banks well before cleanup day. “We walk it and walk it, giving special attention to drift piles, creeks and little drainages because they always carry and catch trash,” Vicki says. Scouts also check roadsides because plants keeps trash from getting down to the floodplain.

After the reconnaissance mission, they know what supplies to prepare: glass dumps need rakes and mesh bags; big dumps with tires need chains and a pulley system, and so on. “If you need a boat, we’ll get you one,” Vicki says. “If you need a bobcat, we’re going to get you a bobcat, and if you need a bigger bobcat we’re going to get you a bigger bobcat.” Need a crane? No problem. This is all planned weeks in advance.

Another thing important to remember after facing so much litter, is that all’s not lost. “At the end of the day, we encourage people to not get too caught up with the trash,” Vicki says. “The Blue can be really nice when it gets warm and sunny, and the wind blows a little bit. It’s still a beautiful river.”

NL_PBRR_Frog%20LogoClick here for more information about the 24th Annual Project Blue River Rescue at Lakeside Nature Center  in Kansas City on April 5, part of “25 Days of Stream Team!”

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2 thoughts on “How 1,000 volunteers save the Blue River from itself each year”

  1. This is so AWESOME!!! The total numbers are fabulous and discusting at the same time. Vicki is my friend and I am proud to say “she lets me clean rivers” (and be a section leader too).

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