I spent last weekend with a few hundred of the hardest working, hardest-drinking environmental activists on Earth: the Waterkeeper Alliance. Keepers from all over the planet descended upon Seattle to share war stories of environmental battles fought in the previous year. I might question the scheduler that put the partying Keepers in the same UW dorm as a cheerleading camp, but I’ll never question the environmental passion of the Keepers. These guys love their bays and watersheds and they’ll do anything to protect them.
Take the case of the Latin American Keepers who risk their lives in Colombia to stop polluters from destroying rivers. Or the scientist from India who displayed the horrors of dams on the Ganges and climate change impacts on Himalayan glaciers. Or the man from the middle Han River (a tributary of the Yangtze that is being devastated by massive water transfers to Beijing) who beamed with pride talking about the first environmental monitoring and education boat in China. Perhaps the most dramatic story was that of the Russian Keeper who showed slides of radioactive rivers, the pain and suffering of those who live near those rivers, and wetlands and rivers devastated by Siberian oil refineries. All of these Keepers had different backgrounds, but all fought for the same cause: clean water.
The U.S. heroes were just as impressive. The Mobile Baykeeper has been fighting against multi-billion dollar corruption in efforts to get the local sewer system and treatment plants to meet Clean Water Act requirements. The hosts, the Keepers of Puget Sound, have become the stormwater enforcement arm of the Washington Department of Ecology. A very impressive feat, even when compared to the extraordinary achievements of one of the speakers — Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who has helped make the Emerald City the greenest major city in the nation. One of the original Keepers, Terry Backer, the hulking Long Island Soundkeeper, is one pissed off commercial fisherman, sick of fishery collapses, and crazy enough to become the minority leader of the Connecticut legislature. The Carolina Keepers brought a vat of pig shit to the governor of the Tarheel State to get his attention on the perils of hog farming. I think they succeeded.
The Waterkeeper movement is the fastest growing global environmental movement on the planet. It is based on local activism, citizen enforcement, grassroots volunteerism, and an unlimited supply of passion. There are now 178 Keepers from around the world and they are led by America’s foremost environmental voice, board chairman Robert Kennedy Jr. , and president Steve Fleischli, a charismatic Heal the Bay alum. Together, they have set insane goals for organizational growth based on a model of local independence led by staff and volunteers, and the urgency that surrounds our growing global water crises. With the growth model they have, the national difference in water quality is already impressive and the international achievements continue to accrue. The franchise method works for business and the Keepers are showing what it can do to save the planet one water body at a time.