At the end of October on the sprawling grounds of the Georgia Wildlife Federation Alcovy Conservation Center in Covington, Georgia, 41 attendees representing 30 organizations (27 Waterkeeper Organizations, 3 Affiliates) gathered for three days of strategic planning and networking at the combined Waterkeeper Alliance Gulf and South Atlantic 2016 Regional Retreat.
I had the distinct pleasure of helping plan, organize and conduct this retreat as our interim Gulf and South Atlantic Regional Coordinator. First and foremost a huge thanks has to go out to Mike, Becky, Gina and Adam and all the fine folks at the Georgia Wildlife Federation
for hosting us on their property and to the amazing Waterkeeper Council members and Waterkeepers who helped make this retreat possible by helping plan the retreat, facilitate most of the retreat and of course for providing and cooking the meals. Thank you Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn & Paige, Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus and Elena Fodera Richards, Youghiogheny Riverkeeper Krissy Kasserman, Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette, French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, Mobile Baykeeper Casi Callaway, and Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins and everyone else who chipped in to make it happen.
In general, regional meetings foster face-to-face collaboration, skills-sharing opportunities and strategic discussions amongst Waterkeepers Organizations and Waterkeeper Affiliates that have geographic and cultural commonalities.
These once-a-year-retreats bring together Waterkeepers and Affiliates for more in-depth discussion and strategic planning than is possible at the annual Waterkeeper conference. And since 2003, these two regions have been getting together nearly annually, entering with ambitious agendas and leaving with great ideas, reasonable plans and a renewed sense of Waterkeeper community.
This retreat was no different in intent but a little unique in approach. The bulk of the agenda focused on building upon the framework discussions around regional collaborative initiatives that were started at the 2016 Annual Waterkeeper Conference in Wilmington, NC in June. At that time the regions decided to focus their attention on working collaboratively within the regions on bacteria, stormwater and regulatory / legislative failure. Whereas the ideas were mere titles in Wilmington, the retreat is where they became working ideas and shared initiatives.
Coming forth from these breakout strategic planning sessions and shared discussion times were some concrete timelines and action items to create shared resource guides and tool kits, to organize collective day of actions and to build political and advocacy power to reform some challenging regulations and legislative actions. While much still has to shake out in terms of next steps and moving forward, the work done in a short time to set that stage was certainly fruitful.
While a good portion of the retreat was spent on this in-depth collaborative initiatives creation, there were also some presentations from both allies and Waterkeeper Alliance staff alike.
First, on the second day, Tuesday, new Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) Executive Director Gil Rogers joined us to talk generally about the SELC and how he sees Waterkeepers engaging most effectively in legal advocacy in the southeast. On Wednesday morning Waterkeeper Alliance Staff Attorney Pete Harrison presented on his work with Waterkeepers on coal ash in the southeast. Pete was immediately followed by April Ingle and Katherine Baer of River Network who presented on their new report titled, “Protecting and Restoring Flows in Our Southeastern Rivers: A Synthesis of State Policies for Water Security and Sustainability”. They also discussed opportunities to work more in the future with Waterkeepers on these issues.
Representing one of the larger and more diverse portions of the United States pulling Waterkeepers from Pennsylvania to Texas to Florida, the combined Gulf and South Atlantic regions rarely disappoint in terms of fun, productivity and surprises. And this year’s retreat was a great example of that. We were treated to some incredible food from slow-cooked pork to a low-country boil, and the Waterkeepers represented their communities well bringing beer from their watersheds for a big microbrew competition. And it was also a very positive networking and “family” time as many of our Waterkeepers from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana have been dealing with some awful and very recent weather and environmental challenges. For three days in Georgia it was about moving forward, together, as a strong Waterkeeper movement.