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Volunteers in Decatur urged to help clean up Wheeler Lake

The Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful cleanup series is making its way to Alabama. Volunteers have the opportunity to help beautify Wheeler Lake in Decatur on Sunday, October 29. The body of water is the second-largest lake on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama.

The cleanup effort is put on by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful. Kathleen Gibi is the Executive Director at the nonprofit and said October is about celebrating and protecting the importance of the river as it generates $12 billion a year. Gibi explained the ultimate goal is to remove as much trash as possible since it’s the main source of drinking water and habitat for local wildlife.

“Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful Month is just a way to celebrate this river. That is really the reason we're all here. All of our towns were founded along the river watershed. We actually live along the most biodiverse river system in North America,” Gibi said. “We’ve got 230 species of fish just in our river system. And for comparison, that's double the width on the Mississippi River. Yet, the Mississippi River is more than three times longer than the Tennessee. So, it's a really special and important river,” Gibi said.

Four cleanups across the river watershed are hosted during the month of October. This year they were located in New Tazwell, TN, Bean Station, TN, Iuka, MS/Counce, TN, and Decatur, AL.

Last year, the nonprofit removed almost 32,000 pounds of litter in October. and each year the volunteer participation grows. Gibi said the organization has a specific goal for 2023.

“Since we existed, Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful has removed almost 600,000 pounds of trash. We're about 25,000 pounds shy of that right now. So, our goal this month is for volunteers to help us nudge past that milestone. We're really confident that it's going to happen, but it really is going to take the volunteers doing it,” Gibi said.

This year Gibi said they’re hoping for 60 volunteers at Wheeler Lake. However, a volunteer must sign up online and fill out the waiver upon registration. Afterwards, all they need to do is show up.

“All a volunteer needs to bring is a shirt, pants, and the proper shoes. They have to be closed toed. We provide everything else. We provide cleanup supplies, we provide life vests, we give a safety speech, and we drive volunteers out on the water. So, they get to have this great experience being on the lake,” Gibi said.

Once a volunteer arrives for a cleanup day, they'll be expected to clean a coded area. Once they finish that area, they will move onto another area until the cleanup is finished. Once everything is over, all the volunteers will see their trash collected.

“There's a lot of opportunities to not only enjoy being out on the water that day, but also to see wildlife and to walk away seeing a true visible difference that you've made. When we finish our cleanup, we have what we call a trash truck. So, we drop the volunteers off, and we take our folks down to collect all the trash. So, you see these trash boats coming in completely full,” Gibi said.

If an individual wants to make an impact without volunteering, they can adopt river miles. The goal is to get people to clean up the trash on their own whenever they come across debris. The current goal is to hit 150,000 pounds of trash removed by adopters.

“We also have a program called Pledge for Rivers, and with that you can stop litter before it ever has the chance of becoming litter. So, if you would like to reduce the amount of waste that you create as a consumer, you can go on our website and make a pledge,” Gibi said.

Participants will make their pledge by removing one of the following from their daily routine for a year: plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, plastic straws, disposable lighters or plastic bags.

There are currently proclamations by governors and mayors to continue celebrating October as Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful Month. Gibi said the process starts with getting the local community involved.

“If you're interested in getting your local elected officials to declare a proclamation for your area. You can go on our website and we have a how to guide on how to get those proclamations made with your local elected officials,” she explained.

Sunday’s launch point for the Wheeler Lake cleanup is located at the Ingalls Harbor Boat Ramp on Market Street NW in Decatur. More information here.

Jolencia Jones is a graduate assistant at Alabama Public Radio. She joined APR in 2022. She graduated from The University of Alabama with a bachelor's degree in public relations. Over the past year, Jolencia has written a range of stories covering events throughout the state. When she's not working at APR, she's writing for 1956 Magazine and The Crimson White.

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