Protecting Our Waterways: The Waterkeeper Alliance

by |January 13, 2011

Photo credit: Diego Silvestre

At any given time, there are dedicated environmentalists around the U.S. working to protect our waterways. In just the first week of the New Year, The Lower Neuse Riverkeeper filed suit against McLawhorn Banks, a major hog farm in New Bern, NC, alleging water pollution from its waste discharges. Clark County, WA’s plan for stormwater management was rejected after being challenged by the Columbia Riverkeeper for not sufficiently protecting water quality and salmon. And in Florida, the St. Johns Riverkeeper announced its plans to assess the scientific validity of a report the Georgia-Pacific paper company is using to justify dumping waste into Rice Creek. These “keepers” are all members of the Waterkeeper Alliance (WKA), an organization of over 200 keepers globally, defending their communities’ rights to clean water.

WKA’s goal is to protect every major watershed around the world, and to make them fishable, swimmable and drinkable. The organization helps communities pursue their legal rights to clean water through grassroots advocacy, and collaborates with other groups to achieve its goals. Today there are waterkeepers, not only in the U.S., but in Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe and Latin America.

The Hudson River. Photo credit: Rolf Muller

WKA began on the Hudson River in 1966 when a group of local fishermen, upset by the extensive pollution of their river from the General Motors’ plant, the Indian Point power plant, and others, formed the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association (HRFA). Bob Boyle, a fly fisherman and writer for Sports Illustrated, told the group about two obscure laws he’d discovered: the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and the Refuse Act of 1899, which outlawed the pollution of American waters and offered a bounty for whoever reported the violation. The HRFA used these laws to hunt down and prosecute the Hudson polluters, eventually collecting bounties against Penn Central Pipe, Standard Brands, Ciba-Geigy, American Cynamid, Westchester County, Anaconda Wire and Copper and many others. In 1983, HRFA bought a boat and hired the first full-time Riverkeeper to patrol the Hudson and enforce environmental laws with the help of citizens and communities. Since then, (Hudson) Riverkeeper has brought hundreds of polluters to justice and forced them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to restore the river.  Its success inspired other citizen-based grassroots keeper programs across the globe modeled after the original Riverkeeper. In 1999, WKA was founded as the umbrella program to support and coordinate all the keepers.

WKA’s campaigns provide education, resources and opportunities to get involved in five aspects of water stewardship.  Its Clean Energy campaign focuses on the coal industry’s environmental impacts, including the mercury discharged by the nation’s 1,100 coal-fired plants which settles in streams, rivers and lakes, and ends up in the fish we eat. The Polluted Runoff campaign deals with polluted runoff or stormwater from urban areas, industry, and development, advocating for stronger stormwater laws and better local stormwater management practices. Pure Farms, Pure Waters challenges polluting confined animal feeding operations that discharge their waste into waterways, and promotes sustainable agricultural processes. As part of the Save Our Gulf campaign, Gulf Waterkeepers were first responders after the BP spill and continue to be actively involved in recovery efforts. The Defending Clean Water campaign advocates for the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would re-establish the Clean Water Act’s authority to safeguard all the “waters of the United States” after the Supreme Court decisions of 2001 and 2006 removed many wetlands, streams, and even some rivers from its protection.

Waterkeepers played an important role in some key December 2010 decisions regarded as environmental victories. After decades of wrangling with the Environmental Protection Agency, Riverkeeper, NRDC, Scenic Hudson, and Clearwater, General Electric consented to finish cleaning up the 1.3 million pounds of PCBs it dumped into the Hudson River.  The contaminated 200-mile section of the river is now the nation’s largest Superfund site.

Also in December, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas extending from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, banning recreational fishing in 12 percent of prime coastal fishing waters. While the plan took into account the concerns of fishermen, divers, scientists, and conservationists such as San Diego Coastkeeper, and tried to balance economic and environmental considerations, many commercial and recreational fishermen are angry. Already suffering from the economic downturn, they feel the protected areas will hurt business even more, and predict that there will be lawsuits challenging the decision.

And in North Carolina, the involvement of the Yadkin Riverkeeper and a number of other concerned parties resulted in the revocation of Alcoa’s water quality permit for withholding information about low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. This thwarts the company’s relicensing application to operate the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project for 50 more years. The dams at the hydroelectric project pull water from deep in the lake where dissolved oxygen levels are low and discharge it into the river below. The water qualification certificate requires that the dams be modified to improve oxygen levels downstream.

To report a pollution problem to your local waterkeeper, visit the Waterkeeper Alliance.

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