Abby Braman of Madison is the executive director of Pearl Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that focuses on the Pearl River watershed.
She attended the University of South Carolina on a ROTC scholarship, earned a bachelor’s degree in marine science from there in 1993 and was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy. Her Navy career consisted of flight school at Pensacola, Florida, designation as a naval aviator, a tour with Helicopter Squadron 7 as an SH-60F/H Seahawk pilot and then work as a TH-57 flight instructor. After a 10-year career and upon the birth of her daughter in 2003, she received an honorable discharge.
Braman and her family moved to Mississippi in the summer of 2016. She began spending time kayaking the Barnett Reservoir and the Pearl River. In February of 2017, she started the Take2Miss social media campaign designed to highlight the plastic pollution problems in the watershed. She organized the first Pearl River Clean Sweep event that deployed river cleanup teams along the entire length of the Pearl River.
What is the goal of the Pearl Riverkeeper?
“Pearl Riverkeeper is a member of an organization known as the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international organization with keepers all over the world who are focused on improving the water quality in our local watershed. It’s very grassroots based. We are the first waterkeeper organization in Mississippi.
“Our goal is to improve the Pearl River watershed through restoration, advocacy and education.”
Where does the Pearl River begin and end?
“The Pearl River Basin watershed drains an area of 8,760 square miles in 23 counties in central and southern Mississippi and three parishes in Louisiana. The Pearl River begins in Neshoba County, passes by Jackson, then runs along the border of Louisiana and eventually drains to the Mississippi Sound, Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico. The river is approximately 490 miles in length and its major tributaries include the Yockanookany, Strong and Bogue Chitto rivers.
“The Barnett Reservoir Dam, built in 1963, created a 33,000-acre impoundment of the Pearl River northeast of Jackson. The reservoir is used both for recreational activities, hosting over three million visitors per year, and as a drinking water supply for the city of Jackson. “
What led you to organize the first Pearl River Clean Sweep event in 2017?
“One of the reasons I started Pearl River Clean Sweep was the amount of plastic pollution and trash I saw in the Pearl River. I ended up hooking with a woman named Jessica Gauley. She lives in Pearl River, Louisiana and runs Honey Island Kayak Tours. Her office is basically on the Pearl River. She’s been running cleanups for many years. This year’s cleanup will be her tenth.
“I said, ‘I’ll have a cleanup in Jackson, and you have one in Louisiana.’ We ended up with 20 different locations and 1,000 volunteers who helped with the cleanup in the first year. Through our Clean Sweep we’re able to cover the entire Pearl River. We start in the headwaters near Philadelphia, Mississippi and have locations at the Barnett Reservoir, in Jackson, Columbia and along the Mississippi-Louisiana border all the way to Pearlington on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
How many volunteers participate in the annual cleanup?
“Over the past years, we’ve had more than 3,000 volunteers participate, and they’ve removed over 130,000 pounds of trash. It’s an amazing community event. We have partners that bring all kinds of interests and demographics. We go from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to Millsaps College students and Hinds Community College students. We have different kayak groups, Keep Jackson Beautiful, and I could go on and on.
“It’s a way for the community to get together and give back. When volunteers leave their section of the river, it’s way cleaner than how they found it. We’ve gotten to the point where there’s much less trash than when we first started the Clean Sweep event.”
What kind of trash is found along the Pearl River?
“It’s a lot of standard plastic water bottles, cans and tires. There are locations through Jackson and down in Louisiana where tires have been dumped through the years. We’ve found all kinds of crazy things like a four-wheeler, a bear skull and refrigerators. There was a big log jam near Bogalusa, Louisiana that contained debris such as air conditioners and giant coolers that impeded the river.”
Where does the trash come from that lands in the Pearl River?
“Most of the trash comes through neighborhoods through storm drains. Litter ends up in storm drains and those run into creeks and then the river. I don’t think people realize that. They blame fishermen but it’s literally all of us.”
Is litter bad for wildlife and water quality?
“It can be detrimental to the water quality, especially Styrofoam. Styrofoam cups degrade quickly, and the pieces look like fish food. Birds eat them. Fish eat them. It’s not a healthy food for the fish, and it’s not healthy if you want to eat the fish.
“The Pearl River runs into our estuaries on the Gulf Coast. That’s the nurturing ground for our commercial and recreational fisheries, the oysters, shellfish and shrimp we like to eat.”
When is the 2021 Pearl River Clean Sweep scheduled?
“The 2021 Pearl River Clean Sweep is scheduled on Sept. 18. This event will celebrate drinkable, swimmable, fishable water in 15 counties, two parishes, two states and over 490 miles of beautiful river.
“The cleanup locations are listed on our website, pearlriverkeeper.com, and anyone is welcome to register online for a location they choose. The event is open to all ages and will be held rain or shine. We ask everyone to bring a reusable water bottle (no single-use plastic bottles), a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer and sturdy shoes. We provide trash bags and litter grabbers.
“Some locations will have free kayak rental. There are locations where you can take your motorboat or kayak and use them, and there are locations that are family friendly where little kids can help clean up.”
How many volunteers do you expect to participate?
“Our volunteers are the key to the sweat equity. Last year, we had about 500 volunteers. Our numbers were down due to COVID-19. We expect about 500 volunteers this year. We’ll be outside and have plenty of room to spread out.”
Why should someone volunteer for the Clean Sweep?
“A lot of people want to leave the river better than they found it and give back to the community. You can enjoy the natural resources of Mississippi, meet other people in our community who are like minded and love the outdoors and help ensure cleaner water. The reservoir is a drinking water source for a lot of our community. To be able to make a difference in the quality of our drinking water means a lot.
“The Clean Sweep is a way to get your kids engaged and to teach the next generation that our natural resources are worth preserving. Kids have a lot of fun using the litter grabbers.”
Will there always be a need for an annual Clean Sweep?
“There’s always going to be that type of cleanup where it’s for maintenance instead of digging out the big stuff.”
What other programs does Pearl Riverkeepers have?
“Pearl Riverkeeper Water Stewards is a program through the Mississippi State Extension Service. Volunteers take a one-day training course and learn how to test the water for bacteria at locations around the Pearl River Basin. Some test north and south of the Barnett Reservoir and in the reservoir. We have been quite happy with the water quality results in the reservoir.
“Another program, River Guardians, relies on volunteers to choose a section of the Pearl River, its creeks or tributaries to monitor four times per year and conduct a litter cleanup two times per year.
“Pearl Riverkeeper has partnered with city of Jackson Public Works to mark and geotag the storm drains within city limits. There’s also the Muddy Water Watch program, which was created by waterkeepers across the country to monitor and protect waterways from harmful sediment pollution.”
What do you enjoy about the Pearl River?
“I love being outside and on the water. One of our big natural resources is the Pearl River. There are gorgeous wetlands where you can go kayaking, and the Pearl River is home to seven endangered species. I believe we should be stewards of it.”