Thousands Volunteer for River Clean Up

Locals gathered at river parkways throughout the greater Milwaukee area to pick up trash, litter, and random debris in the Milwaukee Riverkeeper Annual Spring River Cleanup.

In honor of Earth Day, volunteers braved a grey sky and windy drizzle to spend three hours cleaning the Milwaukee River Basin area. Some came with groups of friends, others with family, and a few brought mans best friend, but all came ready to work.

Armed with gloves, the volunteers picked up everything from glass bottles to shopping carts and left nothing behind but overflowing trash bags. By noon the Milwaukee River Basin areas were looking spotless.

Participants said that they joined the cleanup for many reasons. Some called it a good deed for the day and others said that it’s good for the community.

Sam Hogerton, an East Side resident of Milwaukee, explained that the cleanup is a way to get a sense of ownership in the community.

“It shows respect for the area we live in. We all like living in a clean environment,” said Hogerton.

The cleanup work was succeeded by a Post-Clean-up Trash Bash, a party held at the Milwaukee Ale House in the 3rd Ward, where volunteers were invited to join for food and drink.

The cleanup focused on the entire Milwaukee River Basin area, which includes the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers, and all adjoining tributaries and streams. The basin is located in portions of seven counties and its areas are home to 1.3 million people.

Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation, Veolia Environmental Services, Wisconsin Energy Foundation, CH2M Hill, DeWitt Ross and Stevens, American Transmission Company, Schlitz Park, Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans were all sponsors of the cleanup.

Air Tran, Milwaukee Ale House, Milwaukee Brewers, Thirsty Boy, Fruit of the Bloom Garden Center, and Quick Signs also gave support. The basin is a valuable natural resource. Pollution from littered garbage poses a threat to this resource.

There were over 40 sites where people could volunteer from West Allis to Kewaskum. Over 3,000 total volunteers came out to participate this year, slightly less than last year. Organizers speculate that this lower number is due to the cold weather.


Arek Miaskowski, a site captain, began working with the cleanup five years ago. He volunteered to start a cleanup site at Gordon Park on East Locust Street because there had previously been no cleanup effort there.

As someone living near the park, he suggested it would be a good site that would bring a lot of people.

It’s the effort of people like Arek that have made the cleanup grow strong. Last year brought out a record number of volunteers, a total of 3,700 participants.

Many participants are avid park users, which is why they are compelled to volunteer. It’s nearly impossible to walk along a river basin trail without coming face to face with some sort of debris. This is especially true for the more densely populated areas like the City of Milwaukee.

It’s not just local park users that are grateful for the cleanup benefits either.

“A guy from the Parks Department was here earlier and he really appreciated it. It helps a lot; get’s a lot of garbage out of the parks,” site captain Miaskowski said.

The Milwaukee Parks Department is responsible for managing over 100 parks.


The cleanup is more than just the actual picking up of garbage.

“It gets a lot of kids here, which is good…instilling things like recycling and service at a young age. It’s also really cool because it gets the community together,” said Miaskowski.

Volunteers laughed and joked while holding hands and leaning forward to keep each other out of the icy water. Whether in the river or on land, most of the large debris required teamwork. One group even pulled a sediment filled microwave from the river.

“This is a great way to meet like-minded people who are interested and concerned about the potential of our neighborhood.” Hogerton said.

After only an hour, every garbage can was stuffed past the rim with bulging trash bags. Eventually volunteers settled for piling the bags into neat, but massive heaps.

Reasons to Cleanup

According to Milwaukee Riverkeeper pollution is a major threat to the Milwaukee River Basin. There are five major types of pollution:

  • disease causing organisms
  • organic waste that depletes oxygen
  • abundance of nutrients
  • suspended solids
  • toxic substances

Pollution in the river could cause problems for locals.

“What lots of people fail to recognize is that whatever you throw on the ground will eventually end up in the river and the river leads to Lake Michigan and that’s where we get all of our fresh water,” said Ellie Kirkwood, a cleanup volunteer. “To me that’s the most important concern, this is our fresh water source and we’re treating it like a giant garbage can.”

Kirkwood is an environmental science major at UW-Milwaukee and an intern for the River Revitalization Foundation.

Part of the Milwaukee Riverkeeper mission is to protect water quality.

A number of organizations are attempting to conserve and protect the river in Milwaukee. These organizations focus on educating locals about the river as a natural and recreational resource. They also create projects to revitalize the river now and in the future.

Many of these organizations are part of The Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition.