“A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.”
The lessons learned in a river cannot be scripted. Sure, there are things students learn in a classroom, but more poignant are the life-lessons that strike while paddling a canoe on the serene waters of say, the Volga River.
Many years ago, Volga River lore was deeply knitted in the fabric of Upper Iowa University. Students in the early 1900s trekked to the infamous “Big Rock” for ceremonious freshmen matriculation and again as graduating seniors to say farewell. Students swam in the river, and even did cleanup projects throughout the years.
Somewhere along the way, however, the river was not necessarily forgotten, but set aside for other pursuits.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Upper Iowa students returned to the river.
First, it was a study on water quality in Iowa that three students in the hydrogeology course documented and presented. Working alongside them was the soil and water conservation class, assisting with the logistics of the study. Both courses were advised by Dr. Kata McCarville, UIU assistant professor of geosciences.
The project led McCarville to think that perhaps all Upper Iowa students might be interested – or should be interested – in cleaning up local watersheds for the health of their communities.
During that year’s Fayette Appreciation Day, McCarville led a team of 88 volunteers comprised of UIU students and staff as well as volunteers from across Iowa in cleaning up the river and its floodplain. They worked tirelessly for two days removing 12 tons of garbage from 10.5 river miles and working a combined total of 726 volunteer hours.
Most of what was removed had been washed into the river during the flash flood of 1999 that claimed houses on the northern end of Main Street Fayette. Household items such as food mixers, a metal bed, mattresses, a sign from the former Maple Motel and LP tanks were pulled from the banks. The most confounding item, however, was a 3,000 pound fuel supply tank that was found at Big Rock. The flood had washed it quite a distance before depositing it in a stand of trees.
McCarville literally called in the National Guard. One of her students was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard, and provided her with the necessary contacts to assist in its removal. A month after it was discovered a Chinook helicopter lifted the tank and flew it to a nearby salvage yard.
During a reflection of the river cleanup event, McCarville was pleased to discover that student-volunteers had started to grasp the complexity and connectedness of the Fayette community and the University to the Volga River.
Every year since 2007, McCarville continues to lead efforts to maintain the beauty of the Volga River, as well as educate on the importance of water quality, and how the river ties into that. She says the river knits the curriculum together for her courses.
It has been the inspiration for several senior projects, including one by of alumnus Jeff Gard ’08. During his research Gard focused on petroleum-based pollutants in several bodies of water in the area. As a result of the project, he discovered where the city’s storm sewers empty into the river. “We really started to understand the river and how it’s connected to where all of us live,” said McCarville. She is a member of the Iowa Rivers Revival Board, an advocacy organization devoted to river education.
River cleanup and continued research also spurred McCarville to inquire about the history of the Volga including floods and the effectiveness of structures like levies. This year, during Fayette Appreciation Day, she interviewed long-time Fayette residents about their recollection and connection to the river.
Her geographic information system (GIS) course has also aided in mapping large items along the river for future removal, in addition to helping these students hone their skills. GIS classes have also mapped the ash tree population in the community for the state’s Forestry Bureau to aid in the prevention of an emerald ash tree borer infestation, as well as map and assess the condition of the sidewalks in Fayette.
McCarville sees all facets of a long-term service project like river cleanup. By advocating for the river and spreading the word about the necessity for volunteerism, McCarville hopes to foster a sense of responsibility in others.
“It’s important that we let others know of our service,” added McCarville. “Acknowledging these efforts only helps to educate the public not only on the importance of giving back, but on the issues at hand. Had we not publicized our efforts to clean up the Volga in 2007, we would have not had the level of support from our community and beyond that made the kind of impact that was needed.
“We, as a University family, continue to drive home the importance of connectivity. We are connected to each other, to the land and to our rivers, lakes and streams. By serving loudly we educate, and education is the key to improving our watersheds.”