Debris and graffiti don’t stand a chance on the salt river

Congratulations to the 2018 National River Cleanup® Photo Contest Winner: Natural Restorations, photo courtesy of Tom Corey Images!

Graffiti Removal Project on the Lower Salt River and Saguaro Lake | Nicole and Justin Corey

The Salt River: A place to go salt water tubing, to see wild horses roam and bald eagles fly… and where volunteers frequently gather to tackle a massive trash problem.

Since March 2015, Natural Restorations, co-founded by Nicole and Justin Corey, has organized 49 cleanups removing 366 tons of trash from Arizona rivers, outdoor recreation and wilderness areas. That is the equivalent weight of 246 compact cars.

Why is there so much trash? Decades of trash has piled up for years along the Salt River which winds its way through the Tonto National Forest and Phoenix until it dumps into the Gila River, recently named the #1 Most Endangered River of 2019.

3rd Annual Green Friday Cleanup, Lower Salt River | Robert Coonrod
3rd Annual Green Friday Cleanup, Lower Salt River | Robert Coonrod

Only an hour drive from Phoenix, AZ, the lower Salt River rapids and National Forest are a hot spot for those seeking easy access to nature. With 365 days of sunshine, dry weather and accessible tube rentals and shuttle services, the Salt River never gets a day off.

Tubing on the Salt River is an “Arizona tradition” with floats lasting between 2-6 hours, primarily from May to Labor Day weekend. With temperatures reaching the triple digits, floaters cover their inner tubes with sheets and blankets to prevent burning their skin against the hot plastic, but this has created other problems.

These sheets and blankets along with water bottles, clothes and fishing line contribute a significant amount of trash on the river and threaten the surrounding wildlife. In one instance, a wild horse had to be rescued after becoming tangled in a fishing line left behind.

Natural Restorations started removing decades old trash and has recently tackling new litter left on the Salt River, Gila River, Santa Cruz River and Fossil Creek. Their Green Friday Lower Salt River Cleanup at Phon D Sutton cleanup in Nov. 2018 recruited 346 volunteers with 109 who were under 18.

Their cleanups have continued to grow in participation of all ages as word of mouth has spread by their volunteers.

Trash isn’t the only issue Natural Restorations has seen. Rock faces on Arizona’s public lands are frequently vandalized by graffiti. They once found “Prom?” graffitied on the side of a boulder. Once graffiti pops up on one rock, it quickly shows up on other rocks throughout the area.

Graffiti Removal Project on the Lower Salt River and Saguaro Lake | Nicole and Justin Corey
Graffiti Removal Project on the Lower Salt River and Saguaro Lake | Nicole and Justin Corey

The solution has been to paint over the graffiti, but the Natural Restorations founders and their volunteers were unsatisfied with this. Nicole and Justin started using a biodegradable agent and power washer and have been successfully tackling the graffiti problem ever since.

For trickier locations, members of the climbing community are recruited to help. The quicker they can get the graffiti removed, the less likely other rock faces in the surrounding area will be hit too. So far, they have removed 28,018 feet of graffiti and cover up paint in Sedona, the Florence Boulders and other spots along the Salt River and Tonto National Forest.

What is the secret to their success? “It is a multitude of reasons, but it comes down to how special the Salt River is to the community,” says Nicole.

The National River Cleanup® 2018 Photo Contest Winner | Tom Corey Images
The National River Cleanup® 2018 Photo Contest Winner | Tom Corey Images

Nicole has worked hard to build relationships with local businesses and schools. They work closely with veterans and recruit them to be on their Dedicated Restoration Team. Their strong community relationships and the help of their dedicated volunteers have allowed Natural Restorations to continue building momentum and raising awareness for their cause.

With her husband by her side, his dad taking awesome professional photos, a large team of kid, vet and community volunteers, Arizona waterways and public lands are becoming restored and better protected.

How Can You Make a Difference? “Always try to leave an area better than you found it, small acts can make a big impact over time,” says Nicole.

Anyone who plans to spend their summer on a river should avoid bringing plastic-foam coolers which can easily break and become toxic to wildlife. Bring a trash or onion bag to pick up trash and avoid bringing glass containers, which can also break and put you and others in harms way. If you see graffiti, promptly report it.

More ways to get involved:

  • If you live in Arizona and are a veteran and/or interested in volunteering, check out Natural Restorations at naturalrestorations.org.
  • Take the pledge to clean up our waterways!
  • Organize your own cleanup or volunteer for one in your community.
  • Take action to help stop a harmful diversion on New Mexico’s last major free-flowing river.

Congratulations again to and Natural Restorations and Tom Corey Images for winning the 2018 National River Cleanup® Photo Contest!

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