Local nonprofit aims to clean up region’s waterways through hard work, community outreach and education.

During the 10-minute drive from downtown Gainesville to Earl P. Powers Park on the shores of Newnans Lake, Megan Black repeats two words over and over.

“Polar pop.”

90 seconds pass.

“Polar pop.”

It’s not a nervous tic. Rather, the executive director of Current Problems Inc. is announcing each discarded Styrofoam Circle K Polar Pop cup she notices littered on the side of the road. It’s a habit that doesn’t cease after she’s launched her Gheenoe into Newnans Lake. Within seconds, she spots an anhinga drying its wings in the sun’s rays next to a littered Polar Pop cup. A few feet away, a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy bobs in the water.

As executive director of the 25-year-old local nonprofit, Black, 32, works tirelessly to organize community-wide cleanups of North Central Florida waterways. What started in 1993 as a group of friends banded together to clean up trash and contaminants from the Santa Fe River is now a network of volunteers who gather several times a year for cleanups of local rivers, springs, wetlands, ponds, lakes and urban creeks.

Current Problems’ mission is to preserve and protect North Central Florida’s water resources through action, awareness and education. So far, nearly 20,000 volunteers have collected more than 780,000 pounds of trash at annual events like The Great Suwannee River Basin Cleanup, the Newnans Lake Cleanup and the Clean Creek Revival, which encompasses all Gainesville-area creeks. For Black, this is more than work. It’s personal.

“This job really is my heart and soul. I care so much about the water in our area,” Black said. “Florida has more springs than anywhere in the world. We also have more first magnitude springs than anywhere in the world — that means springs pumping out more than 700 gallons of water each second. We need to do more to protect them.”

Black’s proudest moment as executive director — a position she’s held for a year and a half — came in March during the fourth annual Clean Creek Revival. Through social media outreach, Black coordinated 175 volunteers — the largest figure in Current Problems history — who cleaned 6,590 pounds of trash in two and a half hours.

Though Black is thrilled by her organization’s progress, the physical act of completing a cleanup is oftentimes a painful reminder of the work that remains to be done, especially in changing attitudes about littering.

“After cleanups, I feel disheartened. Seeing the amount of trash everywhere is mind-blowing, and knowing that many people don’t care is sad,” she said. “Afterwards, I have to come home and just be with myself.”

Black’s emotional connection with North Central Florida waterways formed when she was just 6 months old. Black’s parents introduced their only daughter to her first spring: Fanning Springs, along the Suwannee River. Growing up, Black’s family lived near Sebastian on Florida’s Treasure Coast, but they would make the three-hour drive to North Central Florida to vacation near the springs.

“Anytime we could get away, we would come up to the Suwannee River and spring hop in my dad’s boat. Love of springs was deeply ingrained in me by both my parents,” she said. “Being in the water is my therapy.”

Water remains Black’s focus when it comes to her studies. She’s currently enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Florida in fluvial geomorphology, in which she studies how rivers flow and how sediment is deposited. Her master’s thesis is a longitudinal profile of the Kissimmee River and its health in the wake of human engineering and subsequent restoration efforts.

When she’s not completing academic research, she’s hard at work for Current Problems: managing its finances, managing its multiple social media channels, event planning, organizing individual cleanups for local organizations and working with her hands — sometimes hauling loads like a whole lawnmower from local waterways. Black’s current goal as executive director is to increase Current Problems’ education and community outreach efforts.

gainesvillemag2 In: Upstream Solutions | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Megan Black and Jenny Benson at Prairie Creek. Photo by Brad McClenny.

“I want to stop the problem upstream,” she said. “Rather than picking up trash, I want to stop people from littering and get them to care about where they live and what that looks like. I want to invest more time in providing community support and building community.”

That means reaching young minds and influencing their attitudes on environmental protection. Black recalls a recent cleanup with I AM STEM, a local organization working to increase access, equity and diversity of STEM programs for young people. She says the cleanup felt like a treasure hunt to the 5- and 6-year-olds.

“Kids say the most innocent, logical things. They’d ask me, ‘Why do people leave their trash here?’ Or they’d proudly tell me, ‘I love to recycle at my school.’ I hope that feeling sticks with them for life,” she said.

Of course, Black’s goals cannot be accomplished through her two hands alone. She’s assisted in her efforts by enthusiastic volunteers like Wayne Kinard of Fort White, who she estimates pulls more than 6,000 pounds of trash from the Santa Fe River each year.

Kinard recalled meeting Black when the pair set out on their first trash-collecting expedition.

“I thought, ‘Oh wow, here comes a millennial.’ I had preconceived notions about what that meant. I thought she wouldn’t last two hours out on the boat,” Kinard said. “Seven hours later, it was about to get dark, so I called it. I thought, ‘she’s a tough one.’ ”

Since their first meeting, Kinard has found Black to be a dedicated, brave worker who he recalled once gently untangled a hawk from fishing line without batting an eye.

“Megan works tirelessly and she fears nothing except spiders,” he said. “She’s ambitious, she’s tech-savvy, and she’s enthusiastic about helping people to understand that when we mess up our water, we’re only hurting ourselves.”

Caroline Huguenin, a UF student from Costa Rica, has been a regular volunteer with Current Problems since March, as well as a regular witness to Black’s time and effort.

“No matter how big or small the cleanup is, Megan is constantly scouting for places where there is trash, and she always has great ideas of how to involve more volunteers at the cleanups,” Huguenin said. “She knows a lot about North Central Florida’s waterways and the issues they have, and she’s so passionate about it. That’s what makes Megan such a great leader.”

Working as executive director has provided Black with a plethora of memories — both heart=wrenching and heartwarming — that serve as fuel for her organizational fire. From winning the 2018 Wes Skiles Water Stewardship Award to witnessing hundreds of diapers floating in Little River Spring to nature photographer John Moran presenting her with “Mystic Spring” as a gift — Black’s favorite work of Moran’s — her experiences convince her she must keep working toward her goals.

Next up, Black will clean out a sinkhole in Columbia County chock full of 15,000 pounds of trash. She estimates it will take three or four trips to clear the sinkhole of the couches, TV sets, mattresses and chicken coops local residents have discarded here. It’s a herculean task, but Black keeps from feeling overwhelmed by focusing on what’s immediately in front of her.

With one hand steering her Gheenoe and one hand gripping her grabber tool, she slows down the boat along the banks of Newnans Lake, her eyes fixed on a piece of bobbing plastic. She deftly clamps down on a Zephyrhills water bottle and, with one swoop, she throws it into the garbage receptacle she keeps in her boat at all times.

“Got it,” she says as she revs the engine, inevitably steering her boat toward the next piece of trash.