Early on a brisk Saturday morning, kayakers paddled along the Allegheny River, loaded down with tires, trash bags and barrels. They come and go from the dock in Tarentum, unloading debris, resting for a minute, then heading back out to search for more.
These are volunteers with the nonprofit Paddle Without Pollution, founded two years ago by Melissa and Dave Rohm of Scott. Pittsburgh natives and avid outdoors enthusiasts, they decided to get organized after paddling along the Monongahela River downtown for the first time in summer 2011 and discovering a large amount of debris.
"We didn't get very far when we were just shocked by what we saw," Ms. Rohm said. "I offhandedly said, 'Oh, we could do a cleanup.' "
A few weeks later they'd dubbed themselves Paddle Without Pollution. Their first event was September that year.
Since then, the pair has led bimonthly kayaking and canoeing trips to clean and restore wetlands, rivers, streams and lakes in and around Pittsburgh. Destinations have included Chartiers Creek in Carnegie and Upper St. Clair, Ten Mile Creek in Washington County and Slippery Rock Creek.
"We'll go wherever we're needed," Ms. Rohm said, surveying that day's haul, which consisted of 1,574 pounds of litter and illegally dumped debris. "We did this same area last fall and it looks like we're getting the same amount. There just seem to be areas where stuff collects."
In Pennsylvania, more than 16,000 miles of waterways are classified as impaired, according to Kevin Sunday of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The most pressing issue, he said, is acid mine drainage, which affects more than 5,500 waterways in the state.
Grass-roots organizations such as Paddle Without Pollution are important for addressing the smaller, lesser-known issues plaguing waterways, he said.
"They will sometimes see what looks like a discharge or an illegal dump, or something highly unordinary happening and they'll report that in to the [DEP] and we'll investigate it," Mr. Sunday said. "Sometimes the first people to notice something like that could be one of those groups."
Though Pittsburgh was once known for its steel mills and factories that powered the industrial revolution, cleaner waterways are indicative of a shift in attitude toward the city's public resources -- one that's more "conservation-minded," Mr. Sunday said. He cited the rise in Pittsburgh's fishing competitions as evidence of progress being made by local government, environmental groups and community members to ensure better water quality.
"That today you can have nationally televised fishing competitions in a city which has seen so many environmental challenges over the years is astounding," Mr. Sunday said.
Mr. and Ms. Rohm said they hope to expand their group's reach. Cleanups with local children and a documentary about building a water trail in Presque Isle State Park in Erie are in the works. But for now they're focused on cleaning the rivers and streams they've paddled for years, with sustainable methods. In accord with their no-impact philosophy, no motorboats are used. Waste is organized along the shore, then collected by local township governments.
Kristi Cihil of Arnold unloaded several blue bags from the front of her kayak. She then pushed her boat back into the water as she braced herself for another haul: maybe a fire extinguisher or glass bottles-- volunteers find them and more, Ms. Rohm said.
"Sometimes it would be nice to have a motorboat just to pile everything in," Ms. Cihil said. "But then that kind of defeats the purpose."
Paddle Without Pollution's upcoming third annual Three Rivers Cleanup will be on June 8. Teams of kayakers and canoeists will launch from the South Side, Point State Park and Millvale. For more information, visit www.paddlewithoutpollution.com/events.
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 30, 2013) This story originally misstated the amount of Pennsylvania waterways classified as impaired.
Jacob Axelrad: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jakeaxelrad.