JEFFERSON CITY - It began in 1989 as a simple adopt-a-stream program; a handful of Missourians strolling down stream banks, picking up trash.
Now, after eight years, the Missouri Stream Team project is comprised of more than 30,000 volunteers surveying the state's vast network of flowing waters. And they don't just pick up trash anymore. Volunteers work on a variety of tasks, including water-quality monitoring and community-awareness programs.
Mark Van Patten, 44, was present at the birth of the conservation project.
"I started the very first stream team," he said. "We had 250 people or so come down and pick up trash. It was a big, big event. That's what got me involved."
Along the Stream Team's ride to success, Van Patten, 44, was a constant passenger. Now, as the coordinator for the project, he's taking his turn in the driver's seat.
Van Patten, who lives and works in Jefferson City, had been an auto-dealer sales manager before taking on the job as project coordinator. He cited the initiative of volunteers as the reason for the project's growth.
"The teams started saying they wanted to do more than pick up trash," he said.
The number of groups, or teams, working within the Stream Team project has increased steadily since its founding in 1989.
The effort was launched by the Conservation Federation of Missouri and the state's Conservation Department, and was later joined by the Natural Resources Department in 1991.
During the partnership of the non-profit CFM and the two state departments, the Stream Team project has swelled to become a Goliath of more than 1,000 teams -- and is still expanding.
"To my knowledge the Missouri Stream Team project is the largest of its kind in any state," Van Patten said.
Sherry Fischer, the Stream Team coordination biologist, said the project's success could be due to the control the volunteers have over their work.
"I think the reason it's been so successful is that people have been able to get as involved as they want," Fischer said.
Van Patten estimated that almost half the teams were school-related, while the other members are "adults from all walks of life."
"They are provided with the equipment and expertise to go out and monitor their stream," Van Patten said. "We do not tell them what to do, how to do it, or what stream to adopt. They are as active or inactive as they want to be."
On some occasions, teams have discovered substantial pollution and traced them back to the source. Van Patten described one such instance.
"Some rural family farmer stream teams had discovered a fish kill in a massive load of hog manure," he said. "The stream team caught that and reported it."
Van Patten said it would take several more years of data to determine if there are any profound trends in the quality of Missouri's water, including whether or not the Steam Team project's work has had any major impact.
But if impact cannot be easily measured, at least expansion can.
Show-Me Clean Streams, a regional group of teams operating out of mid-Missouri, could be considered proof of the project's continued development.
Jim Davis, of Columbia, is president of the Show-Me group. He said there are at least five other regional groups that have congealed in various parts of the state.
"We're estimating about 70 active stream teams in our area," Davis said. "We try to coordinate what's going on in the six-county area."
The success of the regional groups is indicative of the growth the Stream Team project as a whole has enjoyed.
"Maybe someday we'll have a statewide association of stream teams," Davis said.
By all appearances, the endeavor has come a long way from the fledgling adopt-a-stream program it once was.
Perhaps picking up trash was only the beginning.