The 652-mile Tennessee River has long defined our communities. It serves as a vital source of drinking water and electricity for many Tennesseans, and generates much of our local economy through transportation of goods and tourism opportunities.

After traveling through the seven-state Tennessee River watershed in our 26-foot work boat for the last three years, I’ve found myself increasingly in awe of the diverse wildlife and scenery in our region.

We’ve hosted 80 cleanups since I joined in 2019, and there has yet to be a location that I didn’t stop to admire its beauty.

It’s no wonder that the Tennessee River system generates $12 billion a year in the recreation industry alone or that tourism is the second largest industry for Tennessee.

That pivotal role played by the alluring Tennessee River on our local economy is dependent on a delicate, essential ecosystem.

The Tennessee River is one of the most biodiverse river systems in North America. There are more than 230 species of fish and 100 species of freshwater mussels in the Tennessee River watershed.

For perspective, that’s nearly double the number of fish species found in the Mississippi River, which is 3.5 times longer than the Tennessee River.

Vibrant ecosystems translate into tourism dollars. For example, Kentucky Lake hosts many large fishing tournaments each year.

And both Pickwick and Chickamauga lakes on the Tennessee River are frequently listed as the year’s top 10 bass fishing lakes in the country.

Tennessee benefits from dozens of professionally broadcast fishing tourneys each year, which generate millions of dollars for the state.

In 2016, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) recorded 65.5 million recreation visits.

It was actually TVA and Keep Tennessee Beautiful (funded by the Tennessee Department of Transportation) who rallied together to form Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful (KTNRB) Month to inspire others to take action to protect the Tennessee River watershed so that it may be enjoyed for generations to come.

Today, we’re the nation’s first Keep America Beautiful affiliate to focus solely on a river. More than 2,500 volunteers have helped us remove 275,000 pounds of trash from our waterways since we formed in 2016.

This year alone, we already have reached 100,000 pounds of trash in our goal to remove 125,000 pounds in 2021.

We at KTNRB don’t consider ourselves custodians of the river, or to be picking up this trash forever. The primary goal of our litter cleanups is to showcase river coves that are completely covered in litter so that others will be inspired to act.

That’s why we’re excited about the recent explosion of participation in our Adopt-a-River Mile program, in which more than 100 river miles already have been adopted.

It’s going to take people like our volunteers and river-mile adopters who decide to take action for this river that is so precious to our communities.

If we want to make true change, we need to take a multi-dimensional approach. With that in mind, we’ve installed both preventative and mitigating infrastructure along the Tennessee River and its tributaries.

This includes more than 500 art-wrapped cigarette receptacles across the seven-state Tennessee River watershed to help prevent the most littered item in the world from making it into our waters.

Our partners at marinas, campgrounds and tourism sites maintain the receptacles and we make it easy for them to ship the cigarette butts at no cost.

The microfibers of plastic from the cigarette butts are then recycled into new items like outdoor plastic furniture.

These receptacles have been installed at every campground and marina owned by Tennessee State Parks, the Tennessee Aquarium and Dollywood, which is the first theme park in the world to recycle every cigarette butt they collect.

To date, our program has already recycled more than 71,000 cigarette butts.

We are also working with TDOT and Keep America Beautiful to install infrastructure that mitigates litter on its own.

By the end of the year, we will have a dozen electric skimmers installed in Tennessee that will work 24/7 to remove up to 3,000 pounds of trash each from the river annually. They also filter out gasoline, oils and microplastics.

The statistics on litter prove how very necessary these efforts are to keep our valuable river system clean.

Nationally, a Keep America Beautiful 2020 National Litter Study (released in May 2021) estimates there are 50 billion pieces of litter along U.S. roadways and waterways, equating to 152 pieces of litter for every U.S. resident.

In Tennessee, the state’s Nobody Trashes Tennessee litter prevention campaign managed by our partners at TDOT estimates there are 100 million pieces of litter on the state’s roadways at any given time.

That litter gets blown or washed into our waterways by storms, and experts estimate that 80 percent of the litter in our waterways was originally littered on land.

Though the statistics sound dire, I’ve been so encouraged to see the huge impact made with the help of our partners and so many individuals who have been inspired to care for our river.

Any one person can make a difference, whether it’s joining one of our cleanups or simply picking up a piece of litter on your own. We’re offering plenty of opportunities to make a difference next month.

This October, we will celebrate our fourth annual “Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful Month,” which includes proclamations by elected officials, major river cleanups and the Ripple Effect Awards.

To become part of the movement, visit www.KeepTNRiverBeautiful.org.

To learn more about other community cleanups near you or the Adopt-A-Highway program, visit www.nobodytrashestennessee.com.

 

KATHLEEN GIBI is the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

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