Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Waterkeepers in Our Midst

Today the water in the Connecticut River is clear and much cleaner than it was 30 years ago. (Courtesy photo)

Jessie Haas

Many of us are old enough to remember when canoeing on the Connecticut River (or many other waterways in the Northeast) posed a health hazard. Swimming was unthinkable. The waters were turbid and ran the color of whatever substance the nearest papermill was using. That has all changed. Vermont scuba diver, Annette Spaulding, reports that when she was diving in the Connecticut River thirty years ago, she could barely see her hand in front of her face. Now the water is clear, making diving safer and more productive. River cleanup is partly responsible for her discovery, a few years ago, of the lost Indigenous petroglyphs in Brattleboro, VT.

The Clean Water Act had a large role in giving states and other entities the tools to prevent river pollution. Also responsible is a group of people and organizations doing the work of stewardship. They are variously known as River Stewards or Waterkeepers, and work on and for many of the bodies of water in our area, including Lakes Champlain and George, the Hudson, Connecticut, and Black Rivers, and several bays and estuaries. A Riverkeeper, according to Delaware Riverkeeper Maya Van Rustem, is “a person demonstrating the importance of taking … personal responsibility day in and day out to fight for the river.” Clearly, however, this is not a one-person job. Van Rossum is theoretically responsible for the entire Delaware River watershed, but in reality it is a community of activists, experts, lawyers, and volunteers, that protect and watch over the river.

The Riverkeeper idea was pioneered in the Hudson River Watershed, where John Cronin became the first Riverkeeper in the United States. Vermont’s first Connecticut River Steward was State Representative David Deen of Westminster, an avid fisherman and member of Trout Unlimited—not coincidentally, an organization whose mission is to “protect, reconnect, restore, and sustain coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.”

Riverkeepers and their ilk have multiplied greatly. Now there are Lakekeepers, Baykeepers, Soundkeepers, and Inletkeepers all over the world. You can find out which ones operate in your watershed by going to the Waterkeepers website. Many waterkeepers work under an umbrella organization like the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) or a local association such as the Lake George Association.

The model has produced some important new science. Chris Navitsky, the New York Lake George Waterkeeper, has conducted some breakthrough research on how a particular species of algae found in near-shore areas can help identify and prioritize cleanup efforts. This has led to two important projects in the watershed; a septic system replacement program at Dunham’s Bay in the Town of Queensbury, and a septic system prioritization and remedial action plan in the Town of Lake George. This earned Navitsky a prestigious award from the New York Water Environment Association. Other projects include a road salt reduction program, a state-of-the-art nitrate removing woodchip bioreactor for the Town of Bolton, and a low impact development certification program.

Citizen science is a big part of waterkeeper success. The Black River Action Team (BRAT) in Springfield, VT has run an annual river cleanup day for 23 years. River Dippers collect water samples through a grant from Trout Unlimited. Opportunities to volunteer in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River include counting fish, pulling invasives while canoeing or kayaking, and tree planting for river bank stabilization and wildlife habitat.

In Maine and New Hampshire, the Great Bay Estuary comprises 13,000 acres extending inland from the mouth of the Piscataqua River, including Great Bay, Little Bay, and numerour rivers and creeks, all vital habitat for fish, birds, and other wildlife. The watershed is also home to 52 cities and towns, the redeveloped Pease Airforce Base, and over 400,000 people—and still growing. And the estuary is in trouble. A parasite infestation in 1993 all but wiped out the oyster population, which went from 1,000 acres of beds to only 50. The oysters once filtered the entire Great Bay in just two or three days; the remnant took a year and a half to do the job. Eelgrass, which provides habitat and protection from storm surges, has also declined both in acreage and biomass. Realizing that this loss coincided with increasing pollution, CLF in 2007 leveraged the Clean Water Act to force greater regulation. The EPA focused on reducing nitrogen pollution from sewage treatment plants. Facing stiff pushback from municipal officials, CLF launched the Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper program in 2012. Jeff Barnum, a local recreational fisherman, became waterkeeper. One of his early successes was an oyster shell recycling program, in which shells from local homes and restaurants were used to establish new oyster beds. He organized a group of over 30 volunteer advocates to attend hearings and meetings where issues affecting the bay were on the agenda. Seven cities whose municipal sewage systems discharge into the bay have entered into agreements with EPA to make upgrades to reduce nitrogen pollution. Next Barnum focused on lawns, another major source of excess nitrogen. He educated homeowners, businesses, and hardware and garden store managers who sell the polluting products, about how to use them wisely. Meanwhile, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) from firefighting foam used at Pease are becoming a problem.

Through it all, Melissa Paly, the new Waterkeeper continues Barnum’s workof building a commnuity that cares about, and for, this beautiful body of water.

Waterkeeper is an honorific applied to the point person protecting a body of water. However, all waterkeepers emphasize that they cannot possible do this work alone. We are all the Waterkeepers.

Jessie Haas lives in an off-grid cabin in southern Vermont with husband Michael J. Daley. She is the author of over 40 books, most recently The Hungry Place.


New Hampshire’s Great Bay – Waterkeeper

Home – Waterkeeper

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