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Volunteers slowly, steadily clean Cedar River near Austin, MN

Matt Peterson, Austin Daily Herald, Minn.

The Cedar River flows through the county a little cleaner than it did last winter because of the efforts by a few groups. But people know it’s going to take ongoing efforts to clean the river and keep it that way.

“I think forever, until people stop dumping in our river, we’re not going to stop cleaning it,” said Alex Kasak, a Rotaract member with a group that cleaned a section of the river one day this summer.

Kasak’s group was one of eight that cleaned stretches of the Cedar during 2011. There were hard-fought battles with muck, logjams and thickets. But those who trudged through the bowels of the Cedar and pulled boat loads of trash from the river and its banks now have a better idea of the chore they face in cleaning the river.

“It was an all-day thing,” Kasak said about the first effort. “People were exhausted. … But I think we’re better for it.”

Kasak’s group sifted the river from the Ramsey Dam to Mill pond in town. The group gathered a mountainous pile of trash, which members suspect totaled nearly 500 pounds.

Groups that cleaned the river in 2011 signed up with the help of the Cedar River Watershed District and used the Department of Natural Resources’ Adopt-A-River program. The CRWD’s Justin Hanson, Tim Ruzek and Matt Taylor set their sights on the Adopt-A-River program after they did their own trial run in 2010. After that they compiled DNR fact sheets, tips and route maps for prospective volunteers.

The method they found somewhat useful involved boats, which could float the trash while cleaning the river. But with the current state of the Cedar, that isn’t always easy. Because of the tornado two years ago and floods, downed trees and debris block the waterway in many areas.

That made it difficult for volunteers to get to some of the larger items in the river. Some groups could only pull small to medium-size items.

After volunteers removed chairs, lawn furniture, tractor parts, a TV set, hub caps, metal signs, bicycle parts and many bottles, wrappers and cans, they only scraped the surface.

Kasak’s group encountered a water-logged couch, which they couldn’t remove. Ruzek said it was only realistic for some groups, like Kasak’s, to pull as much little stuff as they could.

“It’s one of those things like, do we sit here for hours and try to get this out, or do we keep moving?” Kasak said.

That difficulty highlighted one of the Cedar’s worst problems: tires.

Ruzek said a group counted 110 tires along its route, but couldn’t remove them as they were heavy, buried, and that would have filled their canoe much too quickly.

And there were more.

Al and Todd Mullenbach and their group scaled the river south of Austin in August and pulled 120 tires from the muck with the help of their own machinery and land access. To make a statement, they piled the tires and trash along Highway 105 where the County could pick it up, with a sign that explained that it was collected within a short distance.

But when volunteers encountered bathtubs, a car, metal culverts, a cattle trough, a tarp hung in a tree, oil tanks, a fence post with concrete, buried tires and large metal pieces, they weren’t able to remove them.

“There are some items in there that no human being can move, no matter how many people we get, we wouldn’t be able to move some of the stuff that’s in there,” Kasak said.

“The Cedar River is a big part of our community that I think gets neglected a lot,” Kasak said after forming impressions from what he saw in the river.

Though many things, such as the cattle trough or siding were likely swept away in floods, Kasak said, other items were deliberately put there.

“I would be stupefied if that couch was brought by a flood, but that’s just one of those things that was dumped there,” he said.

Though groups left many items in the river, they made two-year commitments to clean the river through Adopt-A-River. Now, groups know where those large items are and can plan how to remove them.

Ruzek and Hanson were both pleased with the willingness and number of volunteers this year.

“To get eight groups to adopt a route … I think that’s a really good start,” Ruzek said.

They were surprised, as well.

“I didn’t really get any comments about how miserable the experience or how they won’t be back next year,” Hanson said. “I was actually a little surprised about that.”

That’s good news because Kasak, Ruzek and others said it’s going to take much more than just next year to completely clean the river. It will be an ongoing process, as more natural disasters and polluters will inevitably put things in the river. Regardless, volunteer groups want to change the Cedar River and eliminate the stigma that it is a dirty river with no uses.

“We’re gong to get that coach out,” Kasak said with determination.

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