Although he had participated in many volunteer community service projects through his membership in a regional men’s support group known as the Rising, Arthur Cemelli, an electrical engineer by trade, didn’t originally plan to be New Paltz’s point person for this year’s Riverkeeper Sweep. He thought that he was just going out for a beer with some fellow kayakers at the Newburgh Brewery after a paddle meet-up. But there was a presentation going on by representatives of the Riverkeeper environmental organization, and afterwards one of them came up to him and said, “So you’ve signed up for a Sweep? That’s great!”
It turned out that, unbeknownst to him, Cemelli’s girlfriend, Brenda Bowers had signed him up for the volunteer gig. It was the outdoorsy Bowers, he says, who had prodded him to get involved with active sports like hiking and kayaking in the first place, instead of spending all his free time tinkering and fixing up his 200-year-old post-and-beam house in Wallkill. Together, and sometimes with Cemelli’s eldest daughter, Lauren, they explored the region’s recreational treasures, familiarizing themselves with New Paltz’s stretch of the Wallkill River by participating in the Regatta or launching their kayaks from behind the Ulster County Fairgrounds. And he got to like it a lot: “I’ve seen eagles about 20 times on the Wallkill,” Cemelli now says with relish.
The Riverkeeper rep at the paddling group’s afterparty at the brewery last year explained to Cemelli that the organization was “trying to get into tributaries,” after three years of running the annual Hudson Valley riverbank cleanup. Originally called the Great Hudson River Sweep, the event was initiated in 1998 by Scenic Hudson and spun off ten years later when the latter organization decided that it had developed enough momentum to be carried forward by dozens of community waterfront groups without centralized oversight. But without a regional umbrella organization to handle the logistics and publicity, the Sweep’s momentum faltered, and eventually Riverkeeper stepped in and took charge. Nearly 2,000 volunteers took part in the 2014 Sweep, removing and recycling 31 tons of trash in 82 shoreline locations.
Though New Paltz has had sporadic community-based cleanups of the Wallkill’s banks, this will be its first year back on the Sweep agenda since Riverkeeper took over, thanks to Cemelli’s willingness to take on the project. It takes place on Saturday, May 9 — the weekend following the New Paltz Regatta, so there may be some stray rubber ducks to pluck out of the muck along with the usual fast-food litter, soda bottles and discarded tires. “We’ll be cleaning, sorting and recycling whatever we can,” Cemelli says. “The idea is zero landfill. Bridgestone Tires will take any tires we find, of any brand.”
At 9 a.m. on the 9th, three crews of volunteers will meet at Sojourner Truth Park. One group will plant saplings, as part of the Trees for Tribs initiative run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson Estuary Program. Cemelli will oversee one land-based group that will pick litter from along the banks, plus another group with canoes and kayaks who will pull out the jetsam that is accessible only by water. If enough volunteer watercraft-owners and people with boat trailers show up, he hopes to send another flotilla downstream toward Springtown Road to clean up the boat launch there, perhaps even heading toward the rail trail bridge to tackle the debris that accumulates around the bridge supports.
Another crew of boaters, helmed by “citizen scientist” David Sides of Gardiner, will meet at the bridge where Route 44/55 crosses the Wallkill and head downstream to the old fording place by the bend in Old Ford Road, just above the fairgrounds. It’s a boulder-strewn stretch of river with little islands exposed when the water level is low and rapids that can be treacherous when the water level is high, so “They’re going to have to be good paddlers,” according to Cemelli. Putting his engineer’s problem-solving approach to work, he’s thinking up ways to run some sort of net across the Wallkill to catch flotsam that the paddlers dislodge from between rocks and fallen trees.
This spring’s Riverkeeper Sweep is slated to clean up 95 sites between New York City and the Capital District, and you can sign up for any one you like at Riverkeeper’s website at www.riverkeeper.org. There’s also a link on the site to download forms supplied by American Rivers for high school and college students who want their Sweep volunteer hours to count toward their community service requirements. The event goes on rain or shine, and volunteers should show up wearing mud-appropriate footgear and bring heavy work gloves if they have them. “There’s no bad weather — just bad clothes” for a Sweep, Cemelli says.
Once the hard, messy day’s (or half-day’s) work is done, many Sweep volunteers will converge on local brewpubs that have signed up to supply one free beer (or non-alcoholic beverage) per participant. Cemelli quotes Riverkeeper’s manager of strategic partnerships, outreach and volunteer programs, Dana Gulley, as saying, “Cleaning rivers and drinking beer go together so well.”
As communities along the length of the Wallkill River Valley prepare to meet at SUNY New Paltz later this month to brainstorm ways to clean up our sadly polluted watercourse for the future, it’s a perfect time to get outdoors and lend a hand. Volunteers with boats, trailers, nets and other paraphernalia that will facilitate waterborne cleanup are especially needed, but anyone — even little kids — can help pick up trash and sort recyclables. To volunteer, click the links on the Riverkeeper website. For additional information, e-mail Dana Gulley at firstname.lastname@example.org.