How to Clean Up a Stream

Three Parts:PlanningCleaning UpFollowing Up

Streams are an important part of our ecosystem that can become polluted by garbage, which destroys natural habitat, harms wildlife, and contaminates drinking water. Organizing a stream cleanup is one way to help out our environment.

Part 1

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    Choose a location. You should pick a stream that is important to you or your local community and scout it out before hand. You should try to find a portion of stream that is safe and easily accessible by vehicle or foot. Keep in mind you will be hauling garbage away, it should be easy to get in and out. Try to start small, you don't want to pick somewhere that is too large to effectively clean.
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    Get permission from whoever owns the land. If you don't know who owns it, you can find out by contacting your local county auditor or land title office. Get permission in writing.
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    Choose a date and time. Decide on how long you will be there. You should plan on working no longer than four hours at a time. Allow plenty of time to finish up before nightfall even if you are running late. Keep in mind any seasonal weather conditions such as snow or excessive heat that might make work difficult or dangerous.
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    Find people to help. Ask for help from friends, family, or other people in your community. Consider putting up posters or contacting local media to promote your cleanup effort and attract more volunteers.
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    Decide how to remove trash and recycling. If you are cleaning up a large area and are likely to collect more than a couple bags of garbage, you'll need to make plans with how to deal with the waste. A pickup truck can be used to drive garbage to the dump, where garbage can be dropped off for a fee often based on weight. Your local waste management might have several options for renting a dumpster. It is a good idea to call the dump in advance to find out costs or what items are accepted.
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    Gather your supplies. Some items to include are gloves, shovels, garbage bags, and wheelbarrows. Don't forget first aid supplies, drinking water, and snacks. Prepare a list of phone numbers you might need, including emergency services, waste management, and environmental departments.

Part 2
Cleaning Up

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    Check the conditions before you go. Reschedule if conditions seem unsafe, such as heavy rain, flooding, or thunder and lightning. If heavy rain is predicted, it's safer to postpone the cleanup since water levels can rise quickly.
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    Be respectful of wildlife. Leave any animals alone and give them space. Depending on the time of year and where your stream is located, fish may be in your stream so avoid disturbing the water. If there are any large animals in the area that could be dangerous, such as bear, cougar, or even deer, it might be best to reschedule your cleanup.
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    Consider setting up a staging area. This will serve as a central area to keep supplies. Have a person there at all times who can watch against theft or direct people.
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    Keep safety in mind. There are several things to keep in mind in order to stay safe. Wear suitable clothes, boots, and work gloves. You should always have another person with you in case either of you need help. Don't enter water deeper than your knees, and be careful not to step into a drop off by taking small steps and feeling the bottom with your foot before placing your full weight on it. Practice good lifting technique by lifting with your knees, not your back. If an object is too heavy, get another person to help.
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    Pick up and bag garbage. Wheelbarrows can be helpful for moving larger pieces of garbage. Keep in mind that removing large objects, even if man-made, might be more disruptive to the environment than leaving them there since they may be providing habitat for fish. If a large object is more than half buried, or might kick up a lot of sediment by removing it, leave it there. If a large item looks like it could possibly be dangerous or toxic, contact your local environmental agency to see if it should be removed.
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    If it looks dangerous, leave it. Do not handle anything dangerous such as leaky batteries, chemicals containers, live ammunition, explosives, syringes, sharp metal objects, or broken glass. Report anything that looks toxic to your local Department of Health or Department of Environmental Management.
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    Haul your waste out. In addition to the garbage you've collected, make sure you take out anything you brought in.

Part 3
Following Up

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    Report to the landowner. Let them know how the cleanup went and if there are any issues you discovered that they should know about. Thank them for allowing you onto their land.
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    Thank everyone involved. Your volunteers have put in hard work to make this all happen, and deserve some recognition for their efforts. If you were donated anything or received help in some way from someone, thank them.
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    Tell people what you've done. Consider contacting the local media, such as TV news or the community newspaper. Showing before and after pictures can inspire others to start or join a cleanup effort of their own.


  • Conditions outdoors can change quickly, keep an eye on the weather and have an escape route planned.
  • Always wear latex or nitrile gloves when picking up garbage. If handling anything that sharp or rough, wear thick work gloves.
  • Water can be much deeper and faster than it looks.

Article Info

Categories: Volunteer and Community Service | Environmental Awareness