Volunteers in Mecklenburg, Gaston counties clean waterways in NC Big Sweep

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins filled a plastic bag on Saturday with discarded diapers strewn on the ground beside Mountain Island Lake – almost in the shadow of a sign urging visitors to keep the place clean.

Beer bottles and assorted trash also littered the wooded area beside a reservoir that provides drinking water to Charlotte, Gastonia and Mount Holly.

Perkins was among the more than 500 people taking part in N.C. Big Sweep 2014, an annual statewide waterway cleanup. The event was organized by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services. Partnering on the Gaston County side were the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and Keep Gastonia Beautiful.

Gloves, trash bags, snacks and drinks were provided.

For decades, volunteers have come together each year to clean and clear area creeks and streams. Last year, more than 29 tons of waste, including 10 tons of tires, were pulled from local waterways.

On Saturday, volunteers in Mecklenburg County gathered at the Latta Plantation Nature Preserve, the Campbell Creek Greenway, Mallard Creek Greenway, McMullen Creek Greenway, Stewart Creek Greenway and Berryhill Nature Preserve.

The Gaston County meeting place was Riverbend Public Access off N.C. 16 near Mount Holly.

“N.C. Big Sweep is a great way to get people outdoors helping the environment,” said Kristen O’Reilly, water quality education specialist with Storm Water Services. “It shows that each of us can put forth a small amount of effort, work together and make a big impact.”

About 40 people showed up on the Gaston side of Mountain Island Lake to spend four hours cleaning the shoreline. The group included Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts with Troop 59, sponsored by First United Methodist Church in Mount Holly. The troop recently adopted Mountain Island Lake for ecology projects, and assisting with N.C. Big Sweep was its first.

“I hope they’ll understand about having the opportunity to help the community,” said assistant Scoutmaster Chuck Myers, 65, who was named Mountain Island Lakekeeper six weeks ago. “And I hope they’ll learn they have to start protecting the lake.”

Tracy Smith, 42, of Mount Holly came to the cleanup with her sons, Wyatt, 9, who is a Cub Scout, and Tyler, 12, a Boy Scout.

“I hope they learn that we need to help each other to keep the environment safe, clean and protected,” she said.

Some volunteers walked the shoreline picking up trash. Others, such as Perkins and Mountain Island Lake resident Randy Miller, got to more distant locations by boat.

Growing up in Charlotte, Perkins, 28, knew little about the importance of Mountain Island.

He said he hopes the chance to pick up trash around the lake will let volunteers know “where the drinking water for 1 million people comes from.”

Perkins and Miller focused on what’s known as the “Big Island,” about 4 acres of steep, wooded terrain. It’s also the site of three small beach areas popular for fishing, camping and general partying.

Signs posted on trees warn visitors in English and Spanish about trespassing between sunset and sunrise. Also, the signs read: “Mountain Island Lake. Please Keep It Beautiful. Please Pack Out Your Trash.”

But the message apparently isn’t sinking in because garbage is scattered everywhere.

“You hope year after year you’ll clean it up and make things look absolutely pristine and natural and that people will appreciate it,” Perkins said as he collected diapers someone had dumped.

Miller called the island “one of our biggest trash producers.”

A retired television cameraman, Miller, 60, moved to Charlotte 12 years ago from Los Angeles and has volunteered on Mountain Island cleanups for six years.

Sometimes he’s pleasantly surprised by the lack of trash around the lake.

“At times, it’s remarkably clean,” he said. “Other times, I’m very disappointed at how poorly things are cleaned up.”

Camping is also a problem on the island. Although overnight camping isn’t allowed, evidence of numerous campfires suggests otherwise.

On the other side of the island, in addition to the usual trash, Miller and Perkins found two lawn chairs with cushions. Miller pulled another chair and umbrella frame out of nearby brush.

“It’s unnecessary,” he said.

As water gently lapped on the shore, Miller recalled the variety of bird life on Mountain Island – hawks, eagles and osprey. And great blue herons use Big Island as a rookery, building huge nests in the tops of the tallest trees.

With another Big Sweep winding down, he still had the same message for people who come this way: Keep Mountain Island Lake beautiful.