By: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
My impossible choice: 20 years, 20 Waterkeepers.
Deciding on 20 Waterkeepers to highlight for our 20th anniversary was a daunting task. How could we pick just 20? After all, every Waterkeeper is a warrior and a hero.
The Waterkeeper movement began when a gritty band of blue-collar fishermen mobilized on the Hudson River to reclaim it from massive pollution from several industrial facilities on the river that were destroying it and threatening many of their livelihoods. In 1983, they hired activist and former commercial fisherman John Cronin as the first full-time Riverkeeper and launched a 25-foot wooden outboard to patrol the Hudson for polluters. On his first patrol, Cronin discovered Exxon oil tankers rinsing their holds and stealing water from the Hudson for use in their corporate refinery. Exxon paid $2 million in fines and stopped the practice, and Riverkeeper became the Hudson Valley’s beloved community coast guard. Inspired by Riverkeeper’s success in restoring the Hudson, more than 340 Waterkeeper groups have formed in 46 countries and the State of Palestine, and now patrol and protect waterways from the Ganges to the Thames, from Belize’s Placencia Lagoon to Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake.
These courageous, energetic and resourceful grassroots leaders sue polluters, organize clean-ups, and defend the fundamental human rights to drinkable, fishable, and swimmable waters. Every Waterkeeper combines a river pilot’s knowledge of his or her local watershed with an activist’s unswerving commitment to the rights of the people who depend on those waters. Waterkeepers are the voices of the waters they defend.
Their backgrounds are as diverse as their waterways. They began their journeys as lawyers, scientists, surfers, fishers, journalists, engineers and, on Colombia’s Rio Cravo Sur, an agronomist. All of them saw a treasured waterway in peril and cared enough to commit their lives to defending it.
I’m proud to know that a movement that started with just a handful of fishermen has blossomed into a global legion of water activists. Their victories, viewed together, are astonishing. Just a few:
- Mid Upper Yamuna Riverkeeper in India rejuvenated a once-vital stream of the Ganges that had been dry for more than 50 years, in the process replenishing critically needed wells in parched local villages.
- Bagmati River Waterkeeper in Nepal has organized more than 265 weekly clean-ups, mobilizing more than 1,700 organizations to collect more than 10,000 metric tons of waste.
- Costa Grande Waterkeeper in Mexico partnered with communities in coastal Guerrero to develop a recycling facility to recover marine and coastal plastic. It has recycled over 50 tons of post-consumer plastic and, as a result, decreased the amount of plastic on riverbeds, beaches, lagoons, and roads by 80 percent.
- Working with partners in agriculture, Upper Hunter Waterkeeper in Australia fought — and won — a 10-year lobbying battle with the province’s government to block licensing of a coal mine in the watershed’s upper reaches.
- Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper and partners fought for almost 20 years to secure a new water-level plan for Lake Ontario that returns natural levels and flows to the St. Lawrence River. The plan is the second-largest wetland restoration project in North America, after the effort in Florida’s Everglades.
All those victories — and so many others, from successful Clean Water Act citizen suits to winning campaigns to build new sewage treatment plants — are the work of our Waterkeeper Warriors. I’m proud to call each of them my comrade.
While choosing just 20 to spotlight was an agonizing task, these Waterkeepers vividly demonstrate the breadth, depth and spirit of our movement. I’m delighted to honor them this year as ambassadors for all that we stand for.
- Megh Bahadur Ale, Karnali River Waterkeeper, protects one of Nepal’s last wild rivers, which is being threatened by a plan for major hydroelectric-dam development.
- Liliana Guerrero, Bocas de Ceniza Waterkeeper in Barranquilla, Colombia, has been outspoken in her opposition to stop the destruction that multinational coal companies are wreaking on her country.
- Mbacke Seck, Hann Baykeeper in Senegal and Africa’s first Waterkeeper, secured a $68 million clean-up project for Hann Bay, and has led the opposition to the construction of coal-fired power plants in his country. In 2016, Mbacke was awarded Senegal’s most prestigious environmental prize, the Green Trophy, for his leadership nationally in advocating for a sustainable future for Senegal.
- Sejal Choksi-Chugh, San Francisco Baykeeper, is spearheading the charge to reduce agricultural pollution, industrial runoff, sewage overflows, and oil spills in the San Francisco Bay estuary, which drains water from nearly 40 percent of California.
- Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, has provided a bullhorn to minority communities and led a legal challenge that earned citizens and organizations with aesthetic or recreational interests the standing to contest ill-advised and irresponsible development in Maryland.
- Rebecca Jim, Tar Creekkeeper and a member of the Cherokee Nation, founded Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) in northeast Oklahoma. Since 1997, she has led her community’s fight for environmental justice and remediation of the Tar Creek area, one of the largest and most polluted Superfund sites in the United States.
- Sharif Jamil, Buriganga Riverkeeper and head of Waterkeepers Bangladesh, is leading a national campaign to avert an environmental catastrophe for the country’s 165 million people, who are already among those suffering the most from the effects of climate change and sea-level rise.
- For more than 20 years, Casi Callaway, Mobile Baykeeper, has been Mobile Bay’s most tireless advocate and protector. Under her leadership, Mobile Baykeeper, now the largest environmental organization in the region, was a critical community force during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.
- Rodrigo de la O, Maule Itata Coastkeeper and Chile’s first Waterkeeper, fought a successful seven-year campaign against the construction of a massive coal-fired power plant that would have contaminated the Maule and Itata rivers.
- Hao Xin, Qiantang River Waterkeeper in southeastern China’s coastal Zhejiang province, is battling wide-scale development that has led to rampant pollution and water shortages in a region with 20 million people.
- Senglong Youk, Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper in Cambodia, is one of his country’s leading environmental activists in the fight against a spate of proposed mega-hydropower dams that threaten the ecological health of the Mekong River. At risk are the economic vitality and food security of 60 million people in the region, which is the world’s largest inland freshwater fishery.
- Yongchen Wang, Beiyun Waterkeeper, waged a successful 10-year campaign to save the Nu River, one of China’s last free-flowing rivers, from plans to build 13 large hydropower dams.
- Miami Waterkeeper Rachel Silverstein won a settlement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore 10,000 federally protected staghorn corals damaged during the dredging of the Port of Miami. These corals provide extensive public benefits, including fish habitat and coastal storm-surge protection.
- After making his living as a commercial fisherman and hunter in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin for more than 16 years, Dean Wilson founded Atchafalaya Basinkeeper when landowners and timber companies developed plans to clear-cut Atchafalaya’s cypress forest — the largest contiguous bottomland hardwood forest in North America and a refuge for half of North America’s migratory waterfowl — to produce garden mulch. He succeeded in ending their operations.
- Born and raised along New Jersey’s Hackensack River, the son of a barge captain, Captain Bill Sheehan founded Hackensack Riverkeeper in 1997 and is widely credited with the resurgence of the river and the Meadowlands Estuary.
- Marañón River Waterkeeper Bruno Monteferri, in Lima, Peru, is leading the resistance against a proposal to build 20 dams on the river, the main tributary of the Amazon River.
- Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper in Wilmington, North Carolina since 2010, is leading the fight for clean water in the Cape Fear Basin, which has one of the highest densities of industrial livestock-feeding operations of any place on earth.
- Rashema Ingraham, Bimini Coastal Waterkeeper and head of Waterkeepers Bahamas, is fighting to protect the world-renowned waters of those islands, which are threatened by development, inadequate sewage-treatment, stormwater-runoff, and plastics pollution.
- Under the leadership of Jill Jedlicka, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper spearheaded a $100 million effort, now nearly completed, to clean up the heavily polluted Buffalo River. It also secured a $92 million commitment by the Buffalo Sewer Authority to markedly increase green infrastructure, and, in partnership with another local nonprofit, train workers to maintain it.
- Theo Thomas, London Waterkeeper, is leading the campaign to remedy the torrents of polluted stormwater runoff that flow into London’s sewers and, ultimately, its rivers.
This issue features 10 of our 20 Waterkeeper Warriors; later this year, we’ll run profiles of the other 10.