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Stream Cleanup and Monitoring

Minimum Measure: Public Involvement/Participation

Subcategory: Stormwater-Related Activities

Photo Description:  People can become involved in pollution prevention by volunteering to clean up streams


Hosting a stream cleanup is an effective way to promote stormwater awareness. Many people are unaware that most storm drains discharge untreated runoff directly into local waterbodies. A stream cleanup allows concerned citizens to become directly involved in water pollution prevention. Participants volunteer to walk (or paddle) the length of the stream or river, collecting trash and recording information about the quantity and types of garbage that has been removed. Stream cleanups also educate members of the community about the importance of stream water quality through media coverage and publicity efforts. Many programs have experts on hand at the event to discuss the stream's ecology and history. As a result, the steam is cleaner, volunteers feel a sense of accomplishment, and the community is better informed.


Stream cleanups apply to all waterbodies. Almost anyone can get involved in cleanup activities: schoolchildren, youth groups, neighborhood associations, local environmental groups, and individuals. Cleanups involve tasks of varying difficulty, so people of all ages and skills can participate. Although this fact sheet uses the term "stream," these activities apply to other waterbodies such as rivers, lakes and coastal areas.


Municipalities should consider designating an individual or group to schedule and organize the cleanup projects, recruit volunteers, coordinate trash disposal with the local solid waste authority, and assign staff for project supervision. Projects should be scheduled several months in advance to provide adequate time to organize volunteers and handle logistical issues. Permission to conduct cleanup projects on private property should be secured in advance.

A municipally sponsored stream cleanup program first needs to identify cleanup sites. Data from monitoring activities, including volunteer monitoring, can identify particular stream reaches affected by trash, especially streams near commercial and residential areas that experience high vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

Stream reaches can be prioritized based on the goals of the watershed program. Some communities might target high-visibility or easily accessible areas for maximum convenience and exposure, while others might target the most ecologically sensitive reaches for cleanup efforts.

Once candidate stream reaches have been identified, municipalities should determine the level of effort needed for each project, the size and experience of the group, as well as equipment and supervision needs. A survey should be conducted to identify particular spots where the cleanup effort should concentrate and dangerous spots that volunteers should avoid.

The municipal stream cleanup coordinator should also advertise the program and let service groups know about project opportunities. Advertisements can be placed in newsletters, newspapers, and utility bill inserts or posted on the municipal website. Also, public service announcements can be distributed to radio and television stations. The coordinator can solicit known service groups, environmental organizations, schools, and other groups likely to participate.

Once volunteers are signed up for an event, they should be given information about times, recommendations for clothing and footwear, inclement weather contingencies, and any other pertinent issues.

When volunteers are involved in cleanup efforts, municipalities must address the issue of liability. An attorney should be consulted to determine how liability should be handled and draft a waiver for volunteers to sign before participating. Volunteer safety should be maximized by providing safety vests and an adequate number of staff members for supervision based on the type of volunteers used (i.e., many more staff would be needed to assist a school group compared to a group of adults). Volunteers should be provided with, or be encouraged to bring, durable gloves and shoes with adequate tread. First aid kits should be kept nearby during the cleanup project. If cleanups are located along a roadside, the area should be clearly marked with signs, flags, and cones to alert passing motorists.

The municipality should identify a disposal site for the collected garbage. The local solid waste authority can pick up the bagged garbage at the cleanup site, or volunteers or municipal employees can take it to the disposal facility. Recyclable materials should be separated from trash and taken to a local recycling center.

When the cleanup effort is complete, volunteers should be recognized for their work. Participation certificates, T-shirts, cups, and other promotional items are always appreciated awards. Also, lunch can be provided through donations from local businesses.


Stream cleanup events are an effective way to improve habitat, water quality, and aesthetics. To maintain water quality, cleanup efforts must be recurring; a one-time-only cleanup event might raise awareness in the community, but it will not keep trash out of the stream. Seasonal or annual cleanup events will help ensure that trash and debris are kept out of the stream as much as possible. Volunteer groups can be encouraged to establish Adopt-A-Stream programs to provide for repeated cleanups at a particular site or set of sites. Surveys may be given to participants to gain feedback on the program and to encourage people to participate in the activity again.

Cleanup events are also effective at increasing public awareness of pollutant sources, especially when knowledgeable municipal staff are on hand to answer questions, describe the water resources, and discuss stormwater pollution issues with volunteers. Additionally, all of the information collected at the cleanup sites, including how much of each type of trash was found, can be compiled and presented to the public to inform them about the significance of stream cleanup activities.

A stream cleanup program's effectiveness can be expanded if volunteers report problems such as clogged outfalls, debris too large for volunteers to move, areas of excessive streambank erosion, and signs of illegal dumping. This information will help municipalities to better target their maintenance efforts.


Cleanup efforts benefit both the waterbody and the community. They enable citizens to become more involved in their community and foster a sense of responsibility for the water resources in their community. Also, the cleanup efforts improve aesthetics, habitat, water quality, and prevents debris from moving downstream and potentially into the ocean, where it becomes marine debris. In addition to trash and debris removal, media coverage of the program or cleanup event can increase public awareness of stormwater issues. Volunteer groups can provide additional benefits by taking note of areas where maintenance is needed. Additionally, cleanups can provide a lead-in to volunteer monitoring projects and increase community participation in a variety of other stormwater-related activities.


Organization at the municipal level is a limitation to cleanup efforts. Some municipalities do not have the resources to designate staff to oversee a cleanup program and to supervise cleanup activities. Municipalities constrained by financial and staffing considerations can seek partnerships with other community and environmental groups to develop a program that relieves the municipality of the burden of organization while providing the volunteer groups with the authority to access (with permission) both public and private lands and equipment for trash collection and hauling.

Other limitations to an effective cleanup program include the level of volunteer interest and commitment. In some cases, municipalities must actively solicit community and environmental groups to participate in cleanup projects. The municipal staff in charge of organizing these events should be skilled in volunteer recruiting as well as in advertising the event to maximize participation and exposure via the media.


Stream and river cleanup activities are typically inexpensive, since volunteers perform the labor. The supplies required for these efforts, including durable gloves, garbage bags, and clipboards for recording information, are generally easy to find, are not costly, and may be donated by local businesses, further reducing costs. Collection of the garbage may require some additional expense, but municipal equipment can be used to facilitate transport of the trash.


Appalachian Mountain Club, New York-North Jersey Chapter, Canoe Committee. 1999. Leading River Cleanup Trips. Accessed September 12, 2005.

Donahue, K. 2000. Stream Cleanup Tips and Information. Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment. []. Accessed September 12, 2005.

Little, M. 1999. Adopt-A-Stream in Rome-Floyd County. Environmental and Historic Planning for the City of Rome. [ Exit EPA Site].

Water Action Volunteers. 1998. Storm Drain Stenciling and River Clean Up. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 12, 2005.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. 2005. West Virginia Save Our Streams. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 12, 2005.


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Last updated on July 11, 2012