SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A cloudy, cool day didn’t stop South Orange residents from donning rain boots and rubber gloves and heading to Mead Street for the village’s eighth annual River Day celebration, an afternoon dedicated to cleaning up the section of the Rahway River running through South Orange.
Town officials, students and residents picked snack wrappers, bottles and plastic bags out of the river water in an attempt to be more environmentally friendly and clear the river of trash that would eventually flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Approximately 300 people signed up to wade into the river, in addition to those who spent time near the Duck Pond, learning about the river’s wildlife and racing remote control boats.
“We want to encourage people to appreciate this spot,” James McGowan, a former South Orange Environmental Commission chairman and the chief organizer of River Day, told the News-Record in an interview at the event. “It’s a flyway for migratory birds and we want people to understand that plastic or trash will end up in the river. We’re trying to keep the town free of plastic all year.”
McGowan, who has worked as an environmental adviser for the United Nations for the last 25 years, said anything that goes into a storm drain will eventually end up in the Rahway River, which runs through Essex and Union counties. The river then reaches Staten Island before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. The trash that accumulates in the river also ends up in South Orange’s water supply — another reason for the annual cleanup.
“The wildlife has been rebounding since we’ve started this,” McGowan said. “We’ve seen 100 species of birds, we have turtles. The water quality is coming back. There’s less and less trash, which means it’s multigenerational. People are coming back” annually to clean the river.
According to McGowan, the annual event was founded when South Orange decided to celebrate the river, instead of just gathering to clean it up. River Day was born, and residents were able to learn about the area wildlife species while viewing educational exhibits, listening to live music and eating lunch after a few hours of work.
This year, those educational exhibits were supplied by seventh-graders at South Orange Middle School, just a stone’s throw away from the river. Students spend time in science class wading into the water to learn about the animals that live there, as well as about the water itself. Their study culminates in the research projects they present to South Orange residents for River Day.
SOMS science teacher Anthony Cicenia was at the forefront of the effort to bring seventh-graders to the river. He partnered with McGowan to build the curriculum eight years ago, which has since expanded to include two more teachers at SOMS and programs at Maplewood Middle School and Columbia High School.
“We discuss the river and the living organisms, and through that they develop student projects,” Cicenia said in an interview with the News-Record at the event. “It’s perfect because we can walk right into the river. They determine if the river is healthy, the pH balance, the temperature and the oxygen levels.”
The river program has become something that students in the district look forward to, according to Cicenia; sixth-graders see what their older schoolmates are doing and get excited for science class the next year. Through grants, Cicenia and the Environmental Commission have been able to purchase wading boots and other equipment to grow the program.
“They’re conscious of their local area,” Cicenia said. “And now they’re thinking about where all of that trash is going to go.”
In addition to the students presenting their projects, many other students came out to clean the river, too. Duncan and Angus Gingerich, who are also students at SOMS, pulled a shopping cart out of the river, in addition to a wallet and several buckets full of trash.
“They pulled all of the big stuff out,” Geoff Gingerich, Duncan and Angus’ father, told the News-Record in an interview at the event. “It’s good community involvement, and once we started getting there it was fun.”
Duncan agreed, saying, “It’s pretty satisfying to come out with a bucket full of trash.”
According to South Orange Trustee Walter Clarke, one dump truck was completely filled with trash that came out of the river. The system for cleaning the river has also become environmentally friendly.
“I would guess we had 200 to 300 people pass through during the day and we did fill one dump truck completely with the trash they removed,” Clarke, who is the Board of Trustees liaison to the Environmental Commission, told the News-Record in an email on May 7. “Our new system of using buckets rather than plastic garbage bags also worked well and cut down on the overall use of plastic considerably.”
Clarke also said he was happy with the amount of people and organizations that spent time cleaning the river on Sunday.
“I saw a great cross-section of people involved; Scouts, students, seniors, children of all ages, religious organizations, families, residents and even some non-residents,” he said. “I find it really gratifying every year when I see such a broad spectrum of people who care enough to get wet and get dirty on behalf of their community and our river.”
McGowan agreed with that sentiment.
“It’s crucial to our lives,” McGowan said about the importance of cleaning and maintaining the river. “Every day is River Day, but that’s what today is — for people to show their love of the environment.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic