Much seems to be headed the right direction for Steve Schnarr, the executive director of Missouri River Relief, a nonprofit that aims to build public engagement with the waterway through cleanups and other programming.

The Columbia Missourian recently honored Schnarr with a Progress in Sustainability award for being “the heart and soul of this small, community-based organization,” according to the nomination. And Missouri River Relief recently acquired the MR340, the world’s largest non-stop paddling race, which runs 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles.

However, the frequency of severe flooding is projected to increase due to climate change, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, potentially causing billions of dollars in damage to infrastructure and communities along the river.

Given these significant circumstances, and the fact that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the nonprofit’s first river cleanup, we thought it was a good time to catch up with the 48-year-old Boone County resident.

How did you develop a connection to the Missouri River?

I grew up in Chesterfield, which is right near the Missouri River, but I actually had no connection to the river growing up. I didn’t develop a relationship with it until I left Missouri and moved back several years later to Boone County near Columbia. A friend of mine took me on a canoe trip on the river, and it just opened my eyes to what an amazing resource this was and what an amazing place this was, and I started spending more time paddling. That’s eventually how I got to be involved with Missouri River Relief.

What was it about the river that grabbed you?

My first time paddling on the river, we put in at Moniteau Creek in Rocheport, so we paddled out of the creek and I just saw the water rushing by. I was like, ‘Are you sure this is OK?’ [laughs]. And then we get out on the water, and it was just this amazing, moving, giant water source.

The thing about rivers is they connect to everything upstream and downstream. You can’t sit by a river for a while and look at it without wondering what’s going on upstream. What’s it like up there? Where does all this water go?

I think it immediately sort of awakens something in people’s minds and in their spirit.

What do you think people need to know about the current state of the river?

We’ve changed the river a lot. By channelizing the Missouri River, we’ve reduced the width of it by about two-thirds. And then our culture and civilization grew up around the new river we created. We’ve experienced in the past 20 years more water flowing down the Missouri River than ever before. We’re experiencing greater run-off into the river, and that’s partly due to climate change, increased extreme precipitation events. But also, all the changes that we’ve made to the landscape in the watershed impacts how much water flows into the river.

Because of all we’ve built along this new river we’ve created, things start to get really complex. Flooding impacts a lot of people in cities and in rural areas, and those are all impacts to individual landowners, so coming up with policies to help us deal with this evolving river situation involves a lot of people working together, and that’s not something we do well.

It does seem there are a lot of places where the river flow could benefit from levees being moved back from the river. But that’s not an easy prospect for adjacent landowners. It’s very expensive.

There are no easy solutions, and I think a lot of times politicians and interest groups try to make it sound like there are.

Missouri River Relief has operated a safety boat for the MR340 since 2008 and has developed a strong relationship with its founder, Scott Mansker. What led to your decision to acquire the race?

Our mission is really to connect people to the Missouri River through direct experiences, and that’s basically the mission of the MR340, so it’s always been a great relationship.

The race has cultivated this community of people with increasing knowledge about the river and these wonderful towns and people that live along the river, and that kind of community just didn’t exist before. It’s really exciting to be a part of it.

The race has been disrupted by flooding several times. What do you think the future holds for it?

What we’re going to do is offer three potential dates for the race [to accommodate for possible flooding].

In the past, the race offered vouchers for people if it was postponed or canceled, but that [created a] constant financial drain on the race. So, we’re not going to offer vouchers anymore. We’re changing people’s registration into a partial donation for Missouri River Relief, so if someone isn’t able to use their registration, a majority of it remains a tax-deductible donation.

It seems more people are paying attention to the impact of disposable plastics these days. What difference does that awareness make?

When I talk with audiences about the trash we find on the river and how plastic is such a large component of that, people are way more aware of that than they used to be. When I ask, what do you think the number one item we find on the Missouri River is, 10 years ago people were like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, beer cans?’ Now, everybody says, ‘Plastic bottles.’

Awareness is the first step to people really caring and wanting to do something, so the more people we have out there who value the river and consider the river to be part of their lives — which it is, whether they’re aware of it or not — those are the steps towards action, those are the steps towards change.

Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Steve Schnarr pilots a boat on a river cleanup. Courtesy Missouri River Relief.