KC River Restoration: Giving the Big Muddy a makeover

Not many people in Kansas City have boated on the Missouri River even though it flows right past the city’s doorstep. 

“It’s big, it’s daunting, it’s difficult to access,” says Steve Schnarr, director of Missouri River Relief. 

That’s one reason the Columbia-based nonprofit sometimes has a waiting list for its annual cleanup that starts at Riverfront Park and ferries volunteers six miles upstream and six miles downstream to pick up trash along the banks. It’s a safe way to take a boat ride and experience the “Big Muddy” in all its awesome volatility.

“Our mission is to connect people with the river,” Schnarr says. “It’s a powerful feeling to be out on that much water, the longest river in North America.”

The other reason volunteers line up to help is, of course, necessary maintenance. As the Missouri River winds southeast from its origin in Three Forks, Montana, to where it merges with the Mississippi River in St. Louis, it collects a lot of trash, especially during floods. This spring, the relief organization collected more than eight tons of trash from the river in Kansas City, including tires and debris from a homeless encampment. The average is five to seven tons.

Photo courtesy of Missouri River Relief.

Additional tons of trash are collected yearly from similar large-scale cleanups in Omaha, Nebraska; Weldon Spring, Missouri (near St. Louis); and Glasgow, Missouri (near Columbia). 

Volunteers include school kids, scout troops and adults of all ages. Some are connected with Missouri Stream Team, a group that sponsors an adopt-a-stream or lake access program much like adopt-a-highway. Others are corporate teams from the event’s sponsors.

Organizers try to make the cleanups fun. Volunteers choose team names, then don gloves and life jackets as they board flat-bottom jon boats to spend two hours along the banks stuffing trash into bags. Afterward they gather for lunch, followed by a trash contest with a half-dozen categories. Some recent winners: sunglasses for Most Useful, a single shoe for Most Fashionable, a stuffed teddy bear and a skull for Best Animal Finds, a set of dentures with gold teeth for Weirdest, a rainbow-colored basketball for Best Muddy Ball, and a flying plastic disc for Most Likely To Be Used as a Weapon. Sometimes there’s even a message in a bottle.

About two hundred and forty people registered for the April 15 cleanup, although that number dropped after a forecast of rain. “We all crossed our fingers and the weather held out quite perfectly,” says Alyssa Thomas, the organization’s education and outreach coordinator.

“A lot of volunteers really enjoy their time out on the river,” Thomas says. “If we can get more people to explore it, we can continue to restore it.”

Missouri River Relief also encourages exploration by hosting the world’s longest nonstop river race, the MR340, scheduled this year for August 1-4, which coincides with a full moon on August 1. Hundreds of boaters in canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards compete to finish the river’s three hundred and forty-mile stretch from Kansas City to St. Charles.

“There’s been a lot of people and a lot of organizations trying to awaken Kansas City to the river flowing through it,” Schnarr says. The past disconnect was partly due to the West Bottoms stockyards dumping animal waste from packing houses directly into the water. Today, more cities recognize the truth of a bumper sticker Schnarr’s group sells: “We all live downstream.”

When Schnarr began volunteering with Missouri River Relief in 2001, he says cleanup crews removed legacy trash from the past one hundred and fifty years—items like glass bottles, scrap metal and tires on the rim that bobbed in the water. There’s still quite a few tires, but not as many as before. Now there are more Styrofoam cups and single-use plastics.

To celebrate its twentieth anniversary two years ago, the organization led a massive cleanup from Kansas City to Columbia. Staff crews and several hundred community members along the two hundred-mile route spent two months collecting more than twenty-three tons of trash, reaching some areas that had never been accessed before. 

Does Schnarr ever feel like Sisyphus, tasked with pushing a boulder up a hill that always rolls back down?

“It’s frustrating because what we’re doing is not a solution,” Schnarr says. “It’s a Band-Aid on a bigger problem. But he says it’s not futile. “We have to keep working at it. Missouri residents get forty percent of their drinking water from the Missouri River, and fresh water sources are becoming more and more valuable. I try to keep focused on our mission.” 

Explore, enjoy and restore the river. Repeat.  

Statistics from Oct 2001 – Dec 2022

211: River Cleanups

1,032: Tons of Trash

31,736: Volunteers

Social Media

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to our newsletters

Kansas City magazine keeps readers updated on the latest news in twice-weekly newsletter. 

On Tuesdays, Dish brings you food news and our critic picks. 

On Thursdays, The Loop offers exclusive news reports and our curated events picks.