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BEA AHBECK/NEWS-SENTINEL Project leader Andrew Ramirez, with Blue Shield of California, signals to his crew during Love Lodi in Lodi Saturday, April 14, 2018.

The days are getting longer, and the weather is warming up. Kayakers are hitting the lake, soccer and softball players are heading to local parks, and folks are cleaning out their homes and dusting off their grills for a spring and summer of fun.

And a few hundred volunteers are getting ready for one more springtime tradition: Love Lodi.

The citywide day of service has roots in a homegrown movement in the Central Valley. The first “Love Our Cities” event was held in Modesto in 2007, when that city landed on a list of “worst cities in America.”

According to the Love Our Cities website, organizers of that first day of service expected about a hundred volunteers. Instead, more than 1,200 got to work on a variety of projects.

The movement has spread all over California, including to Lodi. Over the past six years, volunteers have tackled dozens of projects, from painting buildings to landscape maintainance in Lodi’s parks to reaching out to homeless citizens.

Last year, volunteers helped the Lodi Garden Club remove ivy from the Lodi Lake Nature Area, painted the Animal Friends Connection’s sanctuary, built dressing rooms for Lifeline Thrift, installed carpeting at the One-Eighty Teen Center, and helped a veteran repair his deck, among other projects.

“We’re happy to go in and help ... with any cleanups, renewals and repairs that we can,” chairwoman Kelly Benov said.

This year, Lodi nonprofits, the Lodi Unified School District, and the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services have put together a number of projects, some old and some new.

A returning favorite is the Coastal Cleanup at Lodi Lake. The event originally started as part of the Coastal Cleanup movement that takes place around the world each fall. In Lodi, there’s always a Coastal Cleanup event in September.

In 2013, Starbucks employees Erika Geyer and Staci Huck wanted to launch a second yearly cleanup at Lodi Lake, this one coinciding with Earth Day.

As the spring cleanup and Love Lodi both grew, it made sense to hold them at the same time, said Kathy Grant, who co-organizes the cleanup events as the City of Lodi’s watershed program coordinator.

“That’s what Love Lodi is doing,” she said — pulling all of these events together to raise awareness and bring out more volunteers.

Starbucks continues to help organize the Love Lodi cleanup, she said.

At last spring’s cleanup, 176 volunteers — including 20 in kayaks — gathered 275 pounds of trash from around the lake. That’s up from about 60 volunteers at the first cleanup, Grant said.

It’s had a huge effect on the lake.

“You can see over time that we’re picking up less and less trash,” she said.

Take, for example, the cigarette butts. During one of the 2016 cleanups, volunteers collected 2,908. At last spring’s event, volunteers found only 214.

That’s good news, because cigarette butts are not biodegradable. They’re made of cellulose acetate, a plastic-like material.

“If you drop a cigarette butt into nail remover, it will melt,” Grant said.

The chemicals they trap as people smoke can make them toxic when they land in water, too. They can harm or even kill fish and other water creatures, according to a 2011 study in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control.

“They are costing the cities a fortune,” Grant added — and not because of cleanup costs. Discarded cigarette butts have ended up in storm drains, leading to a new state mandate that cities install mesh screens on their drains to capture them.

The screens can run as high as $650,000 per outfall, and Lodi has 17 such outfalls, six that are considered high priority.

Along with fewer cigarette butts, Grant has noticed a huge decrease in the number of plastic bags volunteers have found recently, since new laws went into place requiring stores to sell them rather than giving them away.

But part of the reason for less trash might also be the cleanups themselves, Grant said. Volunteers who work at them share what they found with others. That and media coverage has led to more awareness of what happens to litter.

In recent years, she said, she’s seen people walking around town with trash grabbers and buckets, ready to pick up litter on their daily walks.

“The goal for me personally is changed behavior. The trash cleanups are a way to show people the problem,” Grant said.

She’s hoping fast food places will start providing incentives for people to bring their own cups or food containers next.

Another group at Lodi Lake will be working to restore the butterfly garden. Lodi educator Arilee Pollard, who came up with the garden, and Esther Schmierer has maintained it. However, Pollard has passed away and Schmierer is no longer able to keep up with the demands of caring for the garden by herself.

Weeds have taken over parts of the plot.

“I had a lot of milkweed,” she said.

It’s disappeared, perhaps eaten by the deer, who have munched on other plants in the garden.

“Come Love Lodi, I’m going to try to lead some Girl Scouts. They’re going to try to weed it and sort it out a bit,” Schmierer said.

When the garden was in its heyday, it attracted plenty of butterflies, including monarchs who laid their eggs on the milkweed.

“It would be nice to get it back to that condition again,” Schmierer said.

For now, she’s hoping Girl Scout Troop 1503 and other volunteers for Love Lodi can pull the weeds, plant some seedlings and get it looking nice again. Ideally, a few volunteers might take on the task of keeping it watered and weeded until next year’s Love Lodi.

Both Lodi Lake projects are full, according to Love Lodi’s website, but the two organizers said that they’d welcome any additional volunteers.

The day will start and end at Hutchins Street Square. Volunteers will get started at 9:30 a.m. (or earlier, for some projects). They’re invited to return to the Square for a community picnic at noon. The event is free and open to the public.

“I think there are a lot of people who want to volunteer, but they don’t know where to start,” Benov said. “This gives them a place to start.”

News-Sentinel staff writer John Bays contributed to this report.

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