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    Be a river citizen; help keep our waterways clean

     By Jonathan Devin - The Commercial Appeal -

    It's one of the longest and most powerful rivers in the world, but when it comes to preservation of the mighty Mississippi River, its nearest neighbors know very little about it.

    According to some environmental groups, though, very simple efforts by individuals can make a big difference in the Mississippi's water quality.

    "Anything that goes in the street will eventually end up in the Mississippi River," said Diana Threadgill, president and executive director of Mississippi River Corridor-Tennessee, a nonprofit organization that fights pollution of the Mississippi.

    For several years, the group has been making an effort to raise awareness about pollution of the Mississippi as bluntly as possible. Anything that goes into a storm drain, said Threadgill, whether it's a plastic bottle, a cigarette butt or a spoonful of garden fertilizer, will flow unfiltered into the river.

    "That's a big problem," she said. "I don't think people are aware at all, but when you walk around Downtown or Midtown, all the trash that's on the street, it gets washed into the sewer system. That all goes into the river. I wasn't aware of that until I got involved in this work."

    Recently, Mississippi River Corridor published a list of "Nine Things You Can Do for the Mississippi River" to encourage individuals to take action against river pollution.

    As it turns out, picking up litter and joining an organized river cleanup are just the tip of the iceberg.

    Second and third on the list are "get your lawn off drugs" and "buy organic locally grown produce," two suggestions that Threadgill said people never think of on their own.

    Lawn fertilizers and pesticides do the same damage on a smaller scale as large-scale industrial chemicals and nitrogen-based fertilizers from states in the northern reaches of the Mississippi.

    The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a giant floating amalgam of polluted water in which nothing will grow, is believed to be caused by farm runoff.

    By buying local, organically grown produce, consumers shift business away from large farms to smaller operations, which typically do not use chemicals.

    "The major pollutants that come into the river are from four northern states primarily," said Threadgill. "If you buy local, organic produce, they don't use the nitrogen-based fertilizers."

    Also on the list of tips is "Get to know your river" and "Support river access," as recreational use of the Mississippi is the way most Memphians become informed about pollution of the river.

    "Ten years ago, I never saw any kayaks or canoes," said Threadgill. "But now there are kayaks every day. The marina is full of them. It's becoming more and more popular. We see a definite increase in the recreational opportunities."

    But the trouble, said Ken Kimble, development director for the Wolf River Conservancy, is that many of the people who use the Mississippi and its tributaries, like the Wolf, for recreation are people who moved to Memphis from out of town. With native Memphians, there's a sense that waterways are just for looking at.

    "That's why we believe in education, so that people will understand the effect their actions have on the environment," said Kimble.

    "At one point, the Wolf River was declared a dead river. You weren't supposed to swim in it or take fish out of it, and that's sad, because if you talk to older Memphians, the river played a huge part in their lives growing up."

    The conservancy has an aggressive education department that visits public and private schools for free workshops outlining how people can actively preserve the Wolf.

    In 1995, the conservancy staged a campaign against clear-cutting trees along the Ghost River, and in time brought it back to life, along with the Wolf.

    Now, recreation takes place there, at the same time drawing awareness that the eastern end of the Wolf in Fayette County, or the "Wild Wolf" as Kimble called it, recharges the city's sand aquifers — Memphis' drinking water supply.

    Threadgill said if Memphis had to drink from the Mississippi River, the city would likely take better care of it.

    "People don't realize that over 4 million people along the Mississippi River drink their water out of the river," said Threadgill. "We are so lucky to have these aquifers. Water is important now, but 10 years from now people from out west will start moving into this area primarily because of the water."

    Both the Mississippi River Corridor and Wolf River Conservancy see big problems with another Mississippi tributary, Nonconnah Creek, but so far efforts have been led by individuals rather than groups dedicated solely to the creek.

    But if their tips sound too small and insignificant to save a river as big as the Mississippi, Paul Young, administrator of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability, said individuals can make a difference.

    "The way I really try to think about it is: 'What small things can we do to change our environment?'" said Young, whose office, a joint project of the city of Memphis and Shelby County, helps target ways for government to reduce energy consumption, add recycling centers and develop regional trails, greenways and waterways.

    "When people know they can do simple things to conserve the environment, it makes it easier for them to incorporate into daily life. But when you presume that for me to save the river, I have to go pick up trash in a river cleanup, then that sounds like it takes more. All we're saying is don't throw your litter on the ground."

    The Office of Sustainability was born out of 2009 study of county resources and public opinion that more leadership from government was needed in conservation.

    That is where Threadgill's final tip comes in: Be a river citizen in your community. Speak up and take action.

    Threadgill hopes more everyday citizens will see their river as partly their responsibility.

    "I think if the city itself gets more involved as far as cleanup of the river, that will help tremendously," said Threadgill.