Who Is Waterkeeper: Jerry White Jr, Spokane Riverkeeper - Waterkeeper

Who Is Waterkeeper: Jerry White Jr, Spokane Riverkeeper

By: Thomas Hynes

Jerry White Jr, Spokane Riverkeeper

Spokane Riverkeeper, Jerry White Jr, says his love of the water goes way back. He describes his mother and grandfather. specifically, as ‘river people’ who instilled in him a connection to living rivers. When the World’s Fair came to Spokane in 1974, Jerry visited the exposition and distinctly remembers walking across a bridge over the Spokane River and seeing the fish below. It was the moment he first felt attached to the river.

As an adult, Jerry moved to a house alongside the river, where he and his wife Karen raised their family. He became deeply involved in fisheries and river protection. In 2010, Jerry applied to be the Spokane Riverkeeper. He didn’t get the job then, but he re-applied in 2014 and has been on the job ever since.

“The Spokane River is, in my opinion, a living entity in and of itself that has shared so much of itself for thousands of years with so many people,” says Jerry. “It’s really a little bit humbling to stand by it and interact with it in some ways. It’s the degree to which that river has allowed people, communities and cultures to thrive through its continual flow. The river is this center of life that has shared so much of itself and supported so many kinds of people. It has an awesome presence if you want to tune into it. If you show up for it, the river will show up for you.”

Prior to working as Spokane Riverkeeper, Jerry was a middle school teacher for about 15 years, which he describes as both a “wild” and “beautiful” experience. He also worked for Save Our Wild Salmon, also located in Spokane, Washington, for a few years. When he eventually got the job as Spokane Riverkeeper, he left teaching to work full time for the river and the communities that depend on it.

To be sure, communities have been depending on the Spokane River for a long time. The Spokane area has been continuously populated for 8,000 years. It’s the oldest urban center in the state of Washington. The river, which is a tributary of the Columbia River, is just over a hundred miles long and flows through northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Spokane Riverkeeper was originally part of a larger organization called the Center for Justice, which, aside from environmental advocacy, worked on a host of issues, including housing rights and police accountability. In 2020, Spokane Riverkeeper went independent as their own nonprofit organization.

What keeps Jerry up at night is the actual protection of river flows. Spokane is a boomtown. People from Texas and California move to the area, as well as from Seattle and the more populous parts of Washington state.

“As people pack in, we  keep pumping water. The city consumers use water, which competes with the River for its flow. Add to that climate change which is depriving the river of water in the spring and summer months,” says Jerry. “I feel like Ii’ve been in a crisis with regards to RIver flows,” says Jerry. “I can’t overstate how much I worry about that. The dire predictions are coming true.”

The onslaught of chemicals that are being generated with no precautions in place also worries Jerry. Microplastics, PFAS, PCBs are all getting jammed down the pipes and out to the rivers.

“We don’t really know what effect that is having on our River’s life, but we can predict it’s not good. And the bodies of laws that protect all of our natural systems are not commensurate. They are not up to the task in today’s world,” says Jerry. “Yes, we love the Clean Water Act, but it comes from an old English concept that says the water is owned. This does not lead to a sense of responsibility, only legal obligation.“

Jerry would prefer we see the river not as a commodity, property or have its value defined by utility, but rather see it as a vital community member whose health and well-being is connected to our own.

As Spokane Riverkeeper, Jerry has worked within the legal system to further protect the river. One success was working with partners to force the water quality standards for toxic pollutants to be higher and tighter in Washington State. In 2022, Spokane Riverkeeper and other groups, including Puget Soundkeeper and Columbia Riverkeeper, prevailed on the EPA and the state of Washington to implement new standards for toxic PCBs.

A few years earlier, in 2018, Spokane Riverkeeper concluded a lawsuit with EPA over a flawed clean-up plan in the Hangman Creek Basin – a major tributary to the Spokane River. The lawsuit accelerated the process of addressing land use that pollutes the rivers. The resulting agreement also designated the Watershed as a High Priority Watershed in the State of Washington.

If Jerry had it his way, we wouldn’t be legally polluting rivers at all, and the practice of total daily maximum loads and pollution diets would be strengthened in a way that begins to end pollution, an original goal for the CWA. .

“If I could change one thing, it would be to imbue all the community leadership with a sense of responsibility to the river as a living system. And not just a legal obligation, but for actual corporate and governmental leadership to ask itself how it’s responsible for the health and wellbeing of the river,” says Jerry.

“It goes back to that fundamental relationship that we should have. One that’s reciprocal, that listens, and that sees the river as a community member. To de-commodify, to de-objectify see these natural systems as what they are, which is alive and warranting our care and attention, rather than a a waste disposal system.”

Jerry is retiring from his role as Spokane Riverkeeper later this year. When asked to sum up his feelings about Waterkeeper Alliance, Jerry rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of the organization’s sturgeon logo on his arm. However, that tattoo is far from the only mark left of his years- long commitment to clean water.

“It is a movement and one that I love and will always be grateful for,” says Jerry. “Being a part of it, I was able to meet and work with some of the most passionate people on the planet. The experience and the relationships built being a Waterkeeper has left a wonderful and indelible mark on my heart.”