On rivers, bays, and estuaries around the world, a new breed of activist is plying the waters to protect the health of waterways and put polluters on notice.
The Waterkeeper Alliance is a network of 218 local environmental groups that identify and document sources of pollution and galvanize communities to fight for clean water.
“The laws are on the books to protect our waterways, for them to be swimmable, drinkable, and fishable, but the problem is the laws aren’t being implemented or enforced,” says Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “The government isn’t doing its job to protect our waterways and our communities. The waterkeepers are important because they step in and they fill that role.”
Among the first waterkeepers were blue-collar fishermen who took to the Hudson River in 1966 to call attention to industrial pollution that threatened their livelihood. Their advocacy led to the cleanup of the Hudson River and inspired local activists to follow their example.
The movement continues to grow. When the alliance was formed in 1999, it had 34 member organizations—33 in the United States and one in Canada. Today roughly 40 percent of the 218 member groups are outside the United States.
Mr. Yaggi recently returned from meetings in Nepal with the Gyalwang Drukpa, spiritual leader of the Drukpa Buddhists, who wants to create a network of waterkeepers working out of his monasteries in Bhutan, India, and Nepal.
“It’s such a critical area to protect,” says Mr. Yaggi, who notes that the region is an important source of water for Central Asia.
The hands-on style of environmentalism practiced by waterkeepers often brings them face-to-face with the damage wrought by pollution. In his patrols after the 2010 BP oil spill, Paul Orr, who serves as riverkeeper for the Lower Mississippi, came upon a small island covered with dead and dying birds.
Mr. Orr says crises like the oil-rig disaster only make him more determined.
“The Mississippi River is the biggest, wildest river in the country,” he says. “There are really incredibly beautiful places, and then there are these crazy industrial areas with ships and barges and big industrial complexes. It’s exciting and interesting, and there’s plenty of work to do from an environmental standpoint.”
The Waterkeeper Alliance relies on foundation grants, gifts from individuals, and corporate contributions for its $4.7-million budget.