Last year, the build-up to Earth Day featured word that Giles County would soon launch their New River Water Trail, a distinctive tourism endeavor for our area. This year, we’re focused on a 15-year study of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, found at various points and sources along the New. Current findings were released at a public information meeting at Radford University on April 5. A summary explaining what might eventually be done is anticipated by the end of the year. I’ve also seen commentary on open-air burning of hazardous waste at the Arsenal, which appears to be done in pits very close to this important waterway. Concerns on this topic sparked remarks by nationally recognized activist Erin Brockovich.

Many challenges we face are remnants of a long held idea that the river would wash all of our troubles away with it. There are several reasons why industries were built along water. One was for transport. Another was for output. Likewise, dumps were once located on our rivers.

People who have been doing small community or special interest litter pickups (or even private in the case of my husband, who often dragged our kids out to do a casual cleanup every few weeks) can attest to the old and new trash along banks and in the riverbed. My children would marvel at the shards of pottery that had crept off the old Radford dump into the river. One event led by Pathways for Radford included the memorable occasion of pulling an old-timey wringer washer from the waters.

People in Giles institutionalized a cleanup back in 2001 with their first ReNew the New. According to County Administrator Chris McKlarney that inaugural effort involved about 90 people wading along the shore picking up trash.

A serious commitment by volunteers in partnership with county leadership kept the project going. And with passing time, expertise and impact grew.

“Today’s cleanups will have 250-300 people on the water as well as another 50 on the land crews,” McKlarney described in an email. “Over the past 14 cleanups, volunteers have removed hundreds of tons of trash and debris along with nearly 3,000 tires.”

But the 15th year of this event will have a new look as Giles travels upstream to help their New River neighbors unroll an expanded event — focusing on 11 miles between Claytor Lake and the Prices’ Fork bridge. Coordinators of the 2016 effort, the New River Valley Regional Commission, have begun work on organization and positioning to make the Aug. 27 regional cleanup a full-blown success, even in year one.

Kevin Byrd, executive director of the commission, noted that a peer exchange while visiting Asheville, North Carolina, set the idea in motion. Byrd and his board witnessed significant traffic on the water and learned how the city was currently focused on infrastructure to encourage floating between the Sierra Nevada brewery and the downtown area. A key step for Asheville was collaborating with a river-based nonprofit and conducting some cleanups.

“Asheville realized they needed people to be in the water and have people on the water,” Byrd explained. With kayakers, tubers and boaters enjoying their time, businesses to serve this new “trail” crop up. Businesses at put-in and take-out spots will also notice an uptick.

“If we can create a culture of people engaged in the river, moving it from our backyard to our front yard, it becomes an economic driver,” Byrd continued. Balancing economic benefit with water quality and conservation interests is key.

We already have lines in the water on this front, per Byrd: “You’ll see teams by the Arsenal with their own shirts and pride in their involvement. It’s recognition of the river for multiple purposes.”

But shifts in perspective take a long time. I recall vividly attending planning meetings held more than 10 years ago discussing how Radford can more fully embrace an obvious advantage as the only city on the New. They’ve done a spectacular job with their Riverway trail, and several boat ramps have been improved. The former landfill now serves as the foundation for a waterside birding platform.

Giles County, as with their cleanup program, has led the region in deploying river-based infrastructure with their New River blueway. The enhanced access areas, informative signage and marketing infrastructure will help the county and local businesses take full advantage of this significant natural resource. Since this new economic model depends primarily on tourists and local river lovers, keeping the asset clean and safe for recreation becomes paramount.

The how and why of the cleanup expansion reflects a high-minded generosity on the part of the events’ founders blending with good old common sense.

McKlarney checked with his board of supervisors to see how they felt about diverting focus from the 37 miles in their domain to another section of the river. I asked him if this was a tough sell. “Not at all,” he replied. “The river is a common bond that all of the participating entities share and with a great working relationship between all of the communities already existing, the expansion of ReNew just makes sense.”

Byrd seconded the thought: “They realized that trash moves downstream. They said if we help our neighbors it will help us in the future.”

Cooperation can sometimes be lacking, but our region seems to have become more inclined to conduct business in this manner. “Because of our rural nature and limited financial resources we often benefit greatly from being involved in regional efforts where we get to take advantage of the economies of scale afforded by some of the other communities in the New River Valley,” McKlarney added. “We view this as a great opportunity to give back, by comparison, in a very small way.”

Since the New is so long and beloved, the list of potential partners and volunteers will be robust. Byrd mentioned several local groups already engaged including Friends of Claytor Lake and Friends of Peak Creek. I’ve seen communications from staff at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and several professors at the two public universities as well.

The New River Conservancy (formerly known as the National Committee for the New River) was involved with early planning of the ReNew movement, has participated in many of the cleanups and will be supporting the expansion as well. “The cleanup events with ReNew in Giles have been the best organized and attended events in the watershed,” Executive Director George Santucci noted. “We’re excited to see it expand into a regional effort. Our goal is to help start sustainable local/regional initiatives like this.”

Another important early adopter is Ann Goette, writer and community activist, who lives in Giles along the river and led the conception of ReNew the New. Goette’s comments echo McKlarney and others, with an appropriately creative splash: “This new valleywide initiative, to have the Giles County, time-tested success in clearing litter from our beautiful and historical river duplicated, is deeply promising If the other counties and townships bordering the New River Valley stick a paddle in too, our amazing river will be all the better. One of our slogans is ‘ReNew The New, it’s your river too.’ Everyone is ‘downriver’ from somewhere else.”

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