When I was a little kid growing up in Iowa, we seldom saw Bald Eagles, even though we lived near the Mississippi River. When we did chance to spot one, everyone, children and adults, looked skyward, hoping for a glimpse.
Eagles were endangered because the pesticide DDT found its way into the eagles’ food supply, ultimately weakening the egg shells, causing them to break during incubation. Since DDT was banned in the early 1970s, eagles have come back.
Now, Bald Eagles are common in Iowa. It’s not at all unusual to see one of these majestic birds soaring overhead. In the winter, there are even more eagles as the birds migrate along the Mississippi and Missouri River “super flyways.” Adults and children still find it a thrilling sight, gathering on bridges to watch our national symbol swoop for fish in open water and roost in the tops of trees.
The Des Moines River runs through a park near my home so I ventured out to see if I might spot some eagles for myself. I pulled into the parking lot and hadn’t even gotten out of the car when I saw three mature eagles in a nearby tree. One by one, the eagles took off, leaving me yearning for their return. Even though the river is low, they would be back as long as the river isn’t frozen over.
The drought has been so severe the river now runs in less than half of the area its carved for itself. I set out for a walk, figuring it’s not every day you get to walk on a river bottom. Winter or summer, the river can be a quiet, peaceful place. As I walked, the silence was broken only by the sound of geese calling to each other.
I took along a plastic grocery bag to pick up any trash I might see. Very soon I realized I should have brought more than one bag. Cans. Bottles. A cowboy boot. Even underwear! In no time, my bag was full and the handles were tearing. I left the bag to pick up on the return and continued to walk. In the distance, the sun glinted off the water moving around what I thought was a pile of brush. As I got closer, I could make out a wheel. Then a tire and an axle.
During a drought, the river reveals how we’ve cared for our waterways. The disregard we’ve had for them over the years, using them as a trash bin. Perhaps people thought they’d never fill up. Or that no one would ever know because the garbage sinks out of sight. Perhaps. Until a drought like this shows us the folly.
River clean up efforts like Project AWARE – A Watershed Awareness River Expedition – involve hundreds of volunteers every summer to clean tons of trash out of Iowa’s rivers. The visibility Project AWARE has brought to the plight of our rivers has encouraged thousands of volunteers in communities across the state to get out on the water, too. Those volunteers are doing good work, but they can’t make real progress until people stop putting trash into the rivers in the first place.
Sometimes we humans get it wrong and are able to fix it. We were able to do that with Bald Eagles. I hope we can be that smart when it comes to our rivers.