New volunteer program aims to clean up waterways

Wildlife officials hope to bring litter-control program to a lake or river near you

The state Game, Fish and Parks Department is starting a new Adopt-A-Lake program where individuals, families or groups can volunteer to clean up a local waterbody, similar to the Adopt-A-Highway program that keeps roadways and ditches free of litter. Courtesy graphic

The Game, Fish and Parks Department is hoping a new program will help keep lakes and rivers free of litter in an ongoing effort to preserve South Dakota’s water resources. The Adopt-A-Lake program is currently asking volunteers to lay claim to a body of water as a way of giving back to the environment and saying thank you to surrounding landowners.

Rhet Russell, a wildlife biologist based out of the Watertown GFP office, is the point man for the program in northeastern South Dakota. He said it will mimic existing programs that have helped keep highways and interstates free from litter.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” said Russell, who primarily works on fisheries habitat and access. “There have been lake associations that have done things like this for years, and we’re kind of tailoring it after the Adopt-A-Highway program.”

The Adopt-A-Lake program was borne out of the debate over nonmeandered waters, Russell said.

“There has been a lot of controversy on nonmeandered waters and access, and one of the underlying factors with all of it is litter control and garbage,” Russel said. “Out of all the testimony GFP has heard on water issues, garbage was near the top of the list.”

Volunteer recruitment

For the past few weeks Russell has been been busy contacting local 4-H, conservation and outdoor groups to garner interest in the Adopt-A-Lake program. He said he’s working directly with conservation officers in each district and county in the northeastern part of the state to identify additional groups with ties to the outdoors.

“Currently, what we’re doing is reaching out and asking if these groups would like to adopt a section of a lake or a whole lake and be the policing agency for that waterfront,” Russell said. “It doesn’t have to be a lake, either. It could be a section of the James River, a section of the Big Sioux or just any stretch of water they want to help maintain.”

Individual outdoor enthusiasts, families and anyone else who wishes to help keep lakes and rivers clean and free of trash are also welcome to volunteer, but Russell said existing organizations with a vested interest in the outdoors were a logical place to start, as they already have the infrastructure and manpower in place to take on a project of this nature.

“These organizations already have a workforce and a way of networking to get the word out, but maybe they don’t have the funding or capabilities to start,” he said. “This program is a way for us to help bridge that gap and showcase what aquatic habitat means to South Dakota. What we’ll provide is all the equipment, like garbage bags and gloves, or at some point we might need a Bobcat or tractor to get something heavy out, or maybe there’s a section of the Jim River where we might need a boat.”

Not just a litter crew

Although the program’s initial push will be litter control, Russell said he hopes the program encourages volunteer groups to think beyond the role of garbage duty and actually establish a working relationship with a water body.

“It’s not just a litter crew, but a group that has a tie-in, a relationship with this body of water to someday promote aquatic habitat, fishing access and be a steward of clean water,” he said. “I could see a 4-H group or another youth group adopting a lake and eventually they might start clearing out some brush and debris and creating paths to increase shore-fishing access.”

Russell also said he hopes the program grows to include installing artificial fishing structures, fishing piers and more.

Once a group commits to a stretch of water, GFP will install a sign recognizing their effort. The signage is one way volunteers can see their organization receive positive exposure and branding, Russell said.

“If an organization is working on an area, it gets their name out there and gives them the ability to show what they’re about,” he said. “It’s one way for people to help protect what they love and what they love to do.”

The program’s first event will be June 30 at Lake Poinsett, when the Glacial Lakes Chapter of South Dakota Walleyes Unlimited and the Lake Poinsett Association will meet at 9 a.m. at the Lake Poinsett Recreation Area. Additional volunteers are welcome to help these organizations clean up some of the lake’s most popular shorelines, including the Sorenson Beach and Stone Bridge areas.

“I think it’ll be a neat program, and so far all the people I’ve talked to have been interested in it — nobody’s said no,” Russell said. “Boots on the ground starting with litter control is where we’ll start, but if we have a lot of buy-in from a lot of groups, who knows where it could go.”

Russell said future Adopt-A-Lake events will be posted on the GFP’s online calendar at For more information or to volunteer, email Russell at or call 605-882-5203.

Follow @OutdoorForumMag on Twitter.