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Why nearly 1,200 people spent their Saturday cleaning the Chattahoochee River
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Sarah Pierce, a business students at the University of North Georgia Dahlonega, picks up a mop found along the shore during Sweep the Hooch at Lake Lanier Olympic Park on Saturday, April 6, 2019. The event is put on by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper with two cleanup sites in Hall County. - photo by Austin Steele

Nearly 1,200 volunteers spent Saturday, April 6 wading, paddling or walking along the Chattahoochee River, picking up massive amounts of trash during the ninth-annual Sweep the Hooch event.

Held by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, people implemented cleanups at 46 different sites. The event’s range stretched down more than 100 miles of the river, from the headwaters above Lake Lanier to south of West Point Lake.

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s headwaters group, which is based out of Gainesville, ran six different locations, including Lake Lanier Olympic Park, downtown Helen, Longwood Park, Don Carter State Park and River Forks Campground.

Hannah Warner, headwaters outreach coordinator, said even if people cleaned the Chattahoochee River every day, they would still find trash.

“That being said, last year alone we removed 44,000 pounds of trash,” she said. “It has a tangible impact and there are long-lasting impacts for those getting involved.”

Tammy Bates, the lead coordinator of the event, said volunteers have collected 80 tons of trash over the past years of holding the cleanup.

Bates said she should have the total weight of Saturday’s Sweep the Hooch findings by next week.

“We keep adding sites and volunteers, it just grows each year,” Bates said. “This should be another epic year.”

Dale Caldwell, headwaters director, said witnessing what people leave behind while enjoying the river, or what they throw out their car window into the water is mind boggling.

He finds that embodying stewardship toward the river is the key to preventing the issue.

“As important as this event is — including our volunteers, sponsors and important work as an organization — every one of us can exhibit this type of stewardship on a daily basis,” Caldwell said.

Whether a resident of Lake Lanier, or volunteers from a partnering organization, people of all ages and backgrounds turned out to the event to play their part in protecting the river.

Chris Martin, who came with a group of volunteers from the Target in Cumming, said the corporation always looks for new ways to get involved locally. Martin and his team picked up trash along the shore at River Forks Campground.

“The lake is a resource that I use constantly, and it’s something I can do to give back to the lake, the environment and the community, in order to keep it clean,” Martin said. “If I’m going to continue to use this resource, I need to be able to chip in and keep it clean.”

One of the youngest volunteers of the day, 11-year-old Makenzie Hatton, said the Sweep the Hooch event served as a new experience for her.

Once she started to see the impact she made, picking up trash began to transform into a fun activity.

“It felt good cleaning up the area,” Hatton said.  

Sandra Kearney, a volunteer with the National Park Service, spent most of her Saturday filling trash bags at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.

Shoe soles, flip-flops, plastic bottles, cigarette butts, a doll’s arm and heaping amounts of plastic foam were among the many objects she found floating in the water.

James Watson, manager of Lake Lanier Olympic Park, said every year he is amazed at the large number of people who spend time on the lake, compared to the number of those who actually help clean it.

Two weeks ago he took his 4-year-old nephew out on Lake Lanier. Watson said the young boy couldn’t wrap his mind around why he saw a Starbucks cup floating in the water.

“People should care about the river because No. 1, it’s a beautiful public natural resource that everybody, from infants to older people enjoy,” Watson said. “If it’s not protected, the wildlife will suffer and it just looks bad.”

Regional events