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River Aid: San Antonio community gathers to remove trash from local waterways

"You get more out of than just picking up a bunch of trash. It's a good feeling to make a place look better than it was when you got here," one volunteer said.

SAN ANTONIO — Boy Scout Tanner Keith was one of many volunteers who invested his Sunday morning in making one small part of the world a better place.

Picking up trash with his dad near the Tobin Trailhead in north east San Antonio, Keith said, "I decided to come out and help because it's the right thing to do and I figured earth could need it."

Volunteer Kurt Kummer, who is several times older than Keith, said volunteering to keep local waterways clean makes his heart happy.

"It really does because you get more out of than just picking up a bunch of trash. It's a good feeling to make a place look better than it was when you got here," Kummer said.

Doggedly persistent volunteers say they will make a difference in the quality of local streams one cleanup event at a time.

Volunteers of all ages dove into an event on Salado Creek, determined to undo damage caused by careless humans.

The event, sponsored by River Aid San Antonio, worked on a small reach of the stream, adjacent to the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail just north of Austin Highway.

Group leader Charlie Blank said, "Our goal is to at least get this couple of hundred yards clear, and that's all we can do today, but it's a start and we hope it keeps building momentum and brings a little more awareness every time we do it."

Blank said the natural beauty of the area is marred by trash and debris associated with a homeless camp on the south bank of the creek, which is awash in garbage. The recent storm, Blank said, moved the messy mountain downstream, fouling a larger section of what should be a pristine oasis.

Blank said San Antonians love the trail system and volunteers are turning out at least three times a month to keep local creeks cleaner.

"This just started as a small cleanup and we just thought it would be a fun thing among friends, and before you know it, 30 or 40 people are showing up and pulling out a literal ton of trash," Blank said, adding the new group has been staging at least three events every month, but eager volunteers are asking for more opportunities.

Blank said the idea to join together to accomplish a goal was born during the isolated pain of the pandemic. Blank said he and his friends longed for an opportunity to be with like-minded people with a positive agenda.

"It's too much to deal with as one group alone or one individual alone, certainly, but one city?  Maybe not if we have some solidarity, some focus," Blank said, adding "We want to serve as a conduit, to bring anyone who wants to connect with our rivers and creeks, our community, and take care of it."

Blank said after months of staying home, many people are happy to get out and serve 

"Finding a goal they want to accomplish together?  That's true community. That's true power of the people right there," Blank said.

Wrestling with a commercial-sized trash bag, young Keith said "The most surprising thing has been how much trash there is. I thought it would be like a little amount but it turns out there's a lot more trash than I expected."

Keith said while he is able to earn Scout rewards for his service, he values the sense of accomplishment the work brings.

"It's scary to think of how much trash there is nowadays. But it's good to see people out here helping other people," Keith said.

Surveying the damage done to the waterway, first time volunteer Theresa Rivera said, "I really wanted to help the community because people don't know how to pick up after themselves."   

Rivera said she would encourage anyone to show up and pick up the mess.

"Instead of being at home doing nothing you might as well come out here and volunteer and help," Rivera said.

High school student Viviana Vasquez said initially she volunteered because of a commitment for service hours as a student council project, but she liked the work so much, she planned to return.

"I was really surprised," Vasquez said. "I've never seen anything like this and afterwards I feel really accomplished and I'm glad I was helping out."

"Before this I had no idea there were opportunities like this and now that I'm doing it, it definitely makes me feel better," Vasquez said, adding she would recommend the work to friends because it's enjoyable.

Carting out a heavy load of trash in a shopping cart that had been dumped in the creek, volunteer Kummer said, "It's amazing how much stuff ends up in the creeks and the streams here. It's just unbelievable." 

But he went on to add he is encouraged by seeing events by River Aid San Antonio to make a consistent effort for improvements.

"I thought, 'isn't this great for San Antonio to have people that want to come out here and volunteer their time and help clean up the river?' It's just a wonderful civic thing to do," Kummer said.

Sunday's total of trash collected reached 2001 pounds. To learn about future events, here is a link to the group's Facebook page:

The San Antonio River Authority has also recently launched a new initiative to reduce waste in local watersheds.

The Don't Let Litter Trash Your River campaign is an effort to put litter where it belongs, with a pledge to do right by our waterways and become river proud.