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Fed Up With Litter, This Man Set Out To Clean Up 100 Miles Of River

June 2, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

While Jet Skiing around the Potomac River, Doug Moss, riding low on the water and skimming the currents at high speeds, literally collided with the river’s pollution problem.

“Every now and then, I’d have to slow down, stand up, and guide myself through some trash,” he said of his up-close-and-personal encounter in what he refers to as “our national river.” 

Moss started calling government agencies in Maryland and Virginia to inquire about who was responsible for cleaning up all of the trash he was seeing along the Potomac from the Washington, D.C. line to the Chesapeake. He was surprised to learn that the answer was no one; at least, no one hired by the government, and nobody on a full time or daily basis. 

In what could be called his “Jaws moment,” Moss decided he needed a bigger boat — to clean up the trash himself. He bought a used pontoon boat, formed the nonprofit Potomac River Skimmers, and went to work in his spare time.

As the Potomac flows past the shining, white monuments and memorials of Washington, D.C., it picks up tons of trash and litter, which it carries 100 miles downstream to the Chesapeake Bay, and eventually out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The District of Columbia alone stops 20 tons of trash from entering the river every day through a complex system of garbage “traps” in the city’s storm drain system, but tons more get by, coming in from either side of the District and from the Potomac’s tributaries. That’s even after two District-deployed skimmer boats pick up 400 more tons of trash that get by that first line of defense every year.

Moss’s solution is to spend the majority of his weekend, every weekend, waist-deep in the river, pulling his boat, the Potomac Clipper, behind him as he wades along the shoreline, lifting litter onto its deck. 

“I have a personal day’s best of 493 pounds, and that’s just in one day,” he said. “It would have been more, I would have broken 500, but I couldn’t get the semi tractor-trailer rim and tire onto the boat.”

He has no idea how someone managed to dump an 18-wheeler’s rim in the river, or if there are 17 more floating around the Potomac somewhere, but thinks he would have pulled 600 to 650 pounds of trash out of the Potomac that day if he’d managed to drag it aboard.

Son and Litter Haul Potomac River Skimmers

Moss averages close to a quarter ton of trash pulled from the river every weekend. Considering that most of it is plastic bottles, which weigh out to 33 for just one pound, that’s a lot of work.

“It’s a fantastic story!” Katie Blackman, Director of Community Conservation at the Potomac Conservancy said when she heard about Moss’ nonprofit. “Clean water is the basis for all of our work.”

Like Potomac River Skimmers, the Conservancy was founded by people who enjoy time spent on the river, in its case, kayakers. Since 1993, the Potomac Conservancy has pushed for policy changes to protect the river’s 14,000 square mile basin, placing 1,400 acres in a protective easement, planting trees and restoring eroded shoreline. And, at least once a month, you can find their volunteers picking up trash at some point along the river. Over their 23 year history, they’ve cleared 228,583 pounds of litter from its shorelines.

“It’s a blue whale’s worth of trash and debris our volunteers have removed from the shoreline of the Potomac,” she said.

Blackman describe’s the Conservancy’s strategy as “an inch-wide, mile-deep” to do the most with limited resources. The two-pronged approach lets people “get their feet wet” by enjoying time on the water, thus building an appreciation for the river, and to  “get their hands dirty” by cleaning litter.

They trash the Conservancy and Moss collect has been piling up for decades. Moss keeps a collection of steel beer and soda cans, discontinued in the 1970s, that he’s pulled from the river since last fall.

Radio Tube Potomac River Skimmers

He’s also found old radio tubes (above) while Conservancy volunteers found a box of spark plugs they were able to date to the 1930s.

“We’re not just combatting the trash that’s being put there now, we are cleaning up decades of trash,” Blackman said. “How could this have been there for this long and nobody’s found it?”

Moss wants to turn his river clean-up efforts into a full time job and is carefully charting a course that will let him do it 40 hours a week or more. Until then, he’s willing to devote what time he can to the project.

“We could sit around all day and talk about it, but until you get outside and start doing some work, there’s not going to be any change,” Moss said.

Like the memorials the Potomac flows past, Moss’ drive and his Potomac River Skimmers is a monument to the difference one person can make when, like the volunteers at the Potomac Conservancy, they get their feet wet and their hands dirty.

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