Skunk River Navy

What do you get when you cross a bathtub with biology students? You get the Skunk River Navy.

“Admiral” Jim Colbert began this service project in 1998. What grew out of a need for a learning community activity at Iowa State University (ISU) became an ongoing project, now in its 15th year. Colbert is an ISU biology professor and co-coordinator for the learning community called Biology Education Success Teams (BEST). ISU learning communities are groups of first-year students who share similar interests, majors or career goals.

The idea for the Skunk River Navy came to Colbert while fishing one day. “I was thinking, ‘How can I have these students do something that will have a biological connection and is also a community service activity?’” He noticed a partially sunken bathtub in the stream and knew he couldn’t get it out by himself. “It literally hit me like a bolt of lightning,” said Colbert. “How to get that thing out? Young, strong people. It was this combination of wanting something for the learning community students to do and being frustrated with the trash that was in the river.”

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Colbert and fellow admiral Jim Holtz, an ISU biology academic advisor, coordinate this annual river clean up event over a couple Saturdays each September. Iowa State students, most of who are members of BEST, gather, put canoes in the Skunk River and wade downstream scouting for trash. Everything from plastic bags and pop cans to washing machines and car parts are found along the riverbanks and in the river. The student reaction is usually the same each time. They are in disbelief of what all they find in the river and can’t fathom how it got there.

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To date, the Skunk River Navy has taken at least 68 tons of trash out of the river. Holtz points out that that number is “dry weight. We haul out the wet weight.” Around 1,900 students have participated since its beginning.

The Navy has worked the river, two to three miles per time, from Story City down to where the river crosses I-35 just south of Ames. This stretch is only around 15 miles by car but about 25 miles by river, taking into account its twists and turns. With 68 tons pulled from this short stretch, imagine how much is in the rest of the river, which begins in north central Iowa and empties into the Mississippi River at Burlington.

Cleaning up the river is just one aspect of this project; teaching the students about life in a river as well as the consequences of littering and dumping are also major goals. “Most people’s interactions with rivers is driving over them at 65 miles per hour. They just don’t realize what’s actually going on in there,” said Colbert.

The students are monitoring water quality by taking biological samples while they are there. “The students who are taking my section of Biology 211 get to collect invertebrate animals and we end up reporting that information to IOWATER,” said Colbert. The students have found some invertebrates that are not tolerant of highly polluted waters. “The Skunk is not terrible, which I think is good. There is hope for it. All the way through we’ve found some things that are indicative of not being highly polluted; but I’m not saying it’s pristine.”

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“They actually see, not necessarily the exact same species, but the same groups of organisms we talk about in class and that they see in their laboratory. So there’s a connection in what they are doing out in the river and what they are doing in biology.”

The Skunk River Navy admirals are aware that pulling trash from the river is really only the visual, aesthetic aspect of improving water quality. They know that on the big picture level, this is just a drop in the ocean.

“It’s really benign, there’s really nothing there that you can see that can hurt you,” said Holtz. “There might be some stuff that you can’t see that could hurt you.” The sunken bathtub isn’t increasing the amount of nitrogen or phosphorus in the water nor is it adding to soil erosion. But an oil barrel full of used motor oil could be quite problematic.

Colbert says the message of the Skunk River Navy is to “raise awareness of a couple of things. One is that Iowa State, as an institution, is trying to contribute to our local community. And two: obviously rivers. They are cool, they are important and we’re not taking very good care of them.”

Photos courtesy of Rashah McChesney