Why do you clean up rivers?
Because rivers are fundamental. Because they are important. Because it’s elemental. Everybody wants to talk about gas and oil, but you can live without them. You can live without electricity. But you can’t live without water.
Why the Maumee in particular?
I feel like it’s the most neglected. It flows out of political boundaries, from the city to the county to the state. If you improve the Maumee, then you have to improve the St. Joe and the St. Marys because they’re upstream of the Maumee.
What’s the worst thing you’ve found during a cleanup?
Meth labs. I am concerned about people picking up stuff like the meth labs. But people need to see what comes out. You’ve got condoms and tampons coming into the river from the combined sewer overflows. It’s gross!
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found?
A KISS CD. I found a floating purple flamingo, a floating purple globe. Phones, safes, identification, wallets — I send those back to their owners.
Why isn’t keeping the rivers clean everyone’s priority?
I think that the concept of civic duty has been pushed aside. Our priorities have shifted from doing something good for the community to (acquiring) things. We depend on the government to take care of our problems. The people have an obligation to help. You can’t just pay your taxes and say you did your part.
How do you get people excited to come clean junk out of the mud?
I try to make it fun. I try to appeal to a range of people. It gives people an excuse to go get muddy. How do you get people excited about that? People feel helpless, but you can come out and clean the river and do your own little part for the greater good.
How important is it to have children there?
Kids are my No. 1 priority. These are the ones who are able to fix it or hurt it. If they don’t see it, they can’t fix it. We’re bringing kids back to the understanding that everything is not OK.
What needs to happen?
The biggest problem is sediment and soil erosion. There needs to be more natural filtration systems available. I see a perfectly green lawn and I wonder how much of that green has washed off into the river. We need to put proper erosion controls in new development. We need to replant barren areas, replant trees.
When you were a child, were you interested in the environment?
My mom, Pat Frost, was an environmentalist before there was such a thing. She’d grow vegetables and store them in baby food jars. She still has those baby food jars to this day. She’d repurpose things. I grew up like that, frugally. We need to get back to that. We need to close the cycle. The cycle is broken. From extraction, to production, to consumption to waste — it’s a line and at the end of the line is a big pile of waste.
What are the biggest threats to the river?
Erosion. And all these chemicals from the air pollution and discharges. Then we have these huge confined feeding operations. We’re not talking about Grandma and Grandpa’s farm here. We’re talking about huge pits of hog waste that’s getting into the water supply. Then we have coal ash. The burning of fossil fuels, that’s where arsenic, mercury and PCBs come from.
Why did we let it get this bad?
I don’t know. Out of sight, out of mind? It’s really easy for me to pay a bill at the end of the month and get clean water. And our legislators are not making the best decisions in the interest of the people. Everything traces back to greed. If you want to know what’s wrong with today’s society, it’s greed and apathy. Nobody cares about anything until it affects their health.
Who are your heroes?
Heroes are the little people who stand up, even thought they might be laughed at, said to be crazy or have some label put on them to dismiss them.
How can people help?
They can come to our cleanup on April 22. Meet us at the north side of the Maumee, just across the North Anthony Bridge at 11 a.m., and we’ll put you to work. Come to the Canoe Can You clean up in September. Help us gather seeds and plant grasses.
If you could get corporations to do one thing to help, what would it be?
Be aware. I think some companies are trying, but they have a lot of work to do. They could retool for the next generation’s health.
What’s next for Save Maumee?
We’re joining the Waterkeeper Alliance (formerly known as Riverkeeper Alliance.) I’m looking forward to having a multinational organization that is able to be a mentor for me, to help with grants, to have lawyers on call. They are a solid group that I believe in. They speak for the water. The health of the water is the health of the people.
Are you an example of how one person can change things?
I’m an example of someone who realizes there’s a gap in common sense. I’m trying to bring that back. I want people to understand the common sense reasons for clean water. And I have a lot of people who help me.
How did you learn all the science behind the river’s pollution problems?
I read a lot of scholarly articles. I’m a watershed expert and watershed coordinator certified by Purdue University. I’m an Indiana Master Naturalist and I have my water-testing certificate from the DNR (Indiana Division of Natural Resources).
Save Maumee’s slogan is “speak for the rivers.” What would the river say?
“Help!” The river would say to take water into consideration above money. It would say, what the hell are you doing to me?
Have local governments been supportive of your efforts?
Save Maumee was named the top environmental organization of 2011 by the Hoosier Environmental Council.
It was very exciting. We’re being recognized for work that’s 100 percent volunteer. To get an accolade like that, well, those are few and far between.