Arizona Co-op Goes ‘All the Way to the Border’ in Cleanup Program

A team from Trico Electric Cooperative is a big part of an annual project to clean up a highway that runs through its service territory to Mexico. (Photo Courtesy: Trico Electric Cooperative)

At Trico Electric Cooperative, it’s become an annual ritual of winter: Join your members and pick up the trash.

A group of 17 employees, from the CEO on down, was part of an anti-debris brigade that removed litter from Arizona Route 286 in late January.

As part of the “All the Way to the Border” project, Team Trico filled blue bags with bottles, cans and abandoned backpacks along a stretch of the highway, which extends to Mexico through high desert grassland in Arizona along the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

Marana-based Trico Electric serves the area, including a portion in Mexico, so co-op employees were working side by side with members. In all, about 100 volunteers beautified 45 miles of Route 286.

“It’s a real model for rural electric co-ops,” said Roberta Lopez-Suter, manager of marketing and communications at Trico Electric. “It puts us out there with our members in the community. We do other volunteer events, but this one is the most successful. Our numbers continue to grow and our involvement continues to grow.”

“All the Way to the Border” is the brainchild of Melissa Owen of Sasabe, a Trico Electric member and ranch owner. Owen started organizing small scale cleanups in 1995. Nine years ago, she was inspired to spruce up the road end to end in one day, and Trico Electric quickly signed on.

Piece by dirty piece, Trico Electric Cooperative volunteers clean up Arizona Route 286. (Photo Courtesy: Trico Electric Cooperative)

“We can all get behind this good deed and gift to the beautiful Altar Valley,” Owen said through the Arizona Department of Transportation, which supplies logistical support and picks up the bagged litter.

“Highway 286 is more or less our driveway—there is no other way to reach our ranch except by air—and it’s what our friends and business associates see and the impression they get of our neighborhood when they come here,” she added.

The first year, Trico Electric provided water and snacks for volunteers. The co-op has acquired safety vests, purchased grabbers and gloves, and created customized warning signs that litter crews are at work. This year, it brought in a professional video team to film the cleanup for news and promotional footage to attract additional participants.

After a safety briefing Jan. 27 at Altar Valley Middle School in Three Points, volunteers fanned out along the length of Route 286, where Mary Currie, program manager for the state transportation department, greeted them with “Keep It Grand” lapel pins.

Lopez-Suter said the end result was 261 bags of cans, plastic water bottles and discarded materials.

“It’s just a great opportunity to be out in the community. Keeping our communities clean provides a better quality of life not only for our members, but for our desert wildlife,” she said, adding that the co-op hopes to bump up its patrol from two miles this year to three miles in 2025.

“I’m proud of our employees’ volunteer efforts to keep our community as clean as possible. It is a very visible example of Trico’s strong commitment to the communities that we serve,” said Trico Electric CEO Brian Heithoff.

Steven Johnson is a contributing writer for NRECA.