They serve no master save the water. Over 320 strong, members of the Waterkeeper Alliance are grassroots leaders protecting everyone’s right to “drinkable, fishable, swimmable water everywhere.” Ten are located in Great Lakes waterways.
Every Waterkeeper program is different, unique to the leadership of the individual, the facets of the communities, and the challenges facing the waterway. Their jobs can be contentious in the United States, life-threatening in other countries. And while the four Waterkeepers in the Great Lakes region with whom I spoke agree their success hinges on inclusion, collaboration, transparency, influence, and science, they also insist their primary job is to be the voice of the waterway.
the bay and insist the Clean Water Act of 1972 was enforced, even if it was controversial or unpopular.”
Accepted into the Waterkeeper Alliance two years later, Nelson agreed to become the first Baykeeper.
“My first job as the Baykeeper was to get involved in a proposed plan to link Hartman and Hammond Roads by building a bridge over the Boardman River,” Nelson said. “It was highly controversial at the time, recommended by the road commission but fought by those concerned about sprawl. I focused on the damage that would be done by building the bridge through the wetlands, negatively impacting the quality of water in Grand Traverse Bay.
“Largely because of the effect on the bay, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not award the permit,” Nelson continued. “Instead, working with a coalition of people, we were able to get the $3 million planned for the bridge invested in a ‘Grand Vision,’ a comprehensive land use and transportation plan for the region.”
His second issue was intervening in a development plan approved by the planning commission that would allow Lowes to build a store and create a road through the wetlands adjacent to Kitts Creek.
“I explained to the developer all the reasons the road violated the Clean Water Act. Working together, we came up with a way to build a bridge, not a road, and the company got the green light to go ahead with the project.”
Before long, developers came to Nelson before going through the permitting process. “I never tried to stop development, just improve it,” Nelson added. As a result, few permits are submitted to government agencies without first being reviewed by the Baykeeper team.
“One of my greatest memories is walking the 132-mile shoreline—from the Leelanau Lighthouse to Norwood on the East Bay. My goal was to inventory the number of streams discharging into the bay, the nature of the shoreline, and the effect human activity was having on the quality of the water. It took two years. When people heard about what I was doing, they began joining me on the walks. They wanted to share their part of the beach with me, wanted to learn, to understand what they could do to help keep these waters pristine.”
To participate in the Alliance, a Waterkeeper must have a vessel for monitoring the water. While Nelson started with a kayak, eventually the organization raised money for a tug. The boat is used, among other things, to identify and analyze the vegetation pads found in deeper water. The pads are an indicator of potentially harmful phosphorus levels in the bay.
Nelson retired in 2016, turning the job over to Heather Smith, a woman who grew up sailing the bay with her parents.
“His are tough shoes to fill,” she admitted. “But I feel we are lucky to be in a position to preserve and protect this beautiful body of water that is also so integral to our local economy.”
“It must be a community-based program, focused on advocacy, not research or academics,” explained Sharon Kahn, Recruiting Director for the Waterkeeper Alliance. “And while we provide training, mentoring, tools, and a network of passionate people advocating for the water, applicants must have plans for funding their organizations.”
The Milwaukee Riverkeeper organization advocates for the Milwaukee River Basin, which includes the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers. The basin is divided into six watersheds and is located in portions of seven counties, contains 13 cities, 32 towns, 24 villages, and is home to roughly 1.3 million people. The Milwaukee River Basin is a designated Area of Concern, one of the most impaired Great Lakes waterways.
“What drew me to the job was the ability to be a strong advocate for the water,” said Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper since 2003. “I have a science background, so I pushed for monitoring the river, gathering data to influence decisions. Facts give us legitimacy.”
Nenn reviews all permits within 1,000 feet of the river and pushes for the most environmentally-friendly solutions.
“Most Waterkeepers avoid litigation, use it as a last resort,” she explained. “But our main mission is to have a voice, identify sources of pollution and work across the many parties involved to find solutions.”
She used the discovery of high levels of bacteria found in the water as an example. The nearby municipality pointed to squirrels and raccoons as the source. She submitted the water samples to a local university and the DNA was found to be human. Based on the sampling, they are now working with the municipality to prioritize the stormwater outflows that are most troubling so the issue can be addressed.
While every Waterkeeper is trained and mentored, one of the greatest advantages of participating in the Alliance is the ability to tap into people of similar passion, facing similar challenges as they work to improve the quality of the water world-wide.
“None of us have a ton of resources. There is great value in helping each other, whether it is learning from the Waterkeeper in Casco Bay, Maine how to influence without litigation, or a North Carolina Waterkeeper on a new construction technique that minimizes runoff, or ways to use social media to tap into our grass roots organization, or sharing legal briefs. The list is endless.”
Since she began in 2003, Nenn has seen the number of species of fish in the Milwaukee River increase from four to forty. She says it wouldn’t have happened without a strong grassroots organization armed with facts, willing to get engaged.
Lake Erie Waterkeeper
“I am all about the lake,” said Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper. “That’s it. I won’t sell my soul—which makes me a bit of a maverick. But being a part of the Waterkeeper Alliance gives me the right to speak for the water I love.”
Bihn is known for the alliances she has created over the last 17 years to address the water quality issues plaguing Lake Erie. She initially founded the Maumee Bay Association in 2000, a grassroots organization created to stop the expansion of a dredge disposal facility in the bay. She applied to become a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance in 2005, focusing initially on the western end of the lake, before expanding the program to serve all of Lake Erie in 2011.
“I found that if you don’t encompass the whole watershed, it’s difficult to identify the top priorities and build the consensus necessary to drive change,” Bihn said. “For example, our focus right now is on accountability reporting and measurement. As we’ve drilled down to address the source of algae plaguing the entire lake, we’ve discovered the primary issue is manure.
"One of the first challenges is understanding how many animals are in the watershed and where they are located,” she continued. "Each state’s permitting process is different so gathering that information is difficult. In Ohio, permits are required for 800 cows. Less than that, and we don’t know where the farms are located. Indiana requires permits for farms with 300 cows. Information is the basis for building the alliances we need to drive change.”
Because Lake Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, it will get sicker, quicker than the other lakes.
“Applying to become a Waterkeeper forced me to understand the statistics of the lake,” Bihn said. “It was an amazing process. And it gave me access to all these resources and people—ambitious, dedicated people who were willing to explain things in a simple, straightforward way.”
businesses, developers, planners, and government representatives as decisions are made that affect the quality of your watershed?
Do you know how to find out?
I don’t. But since I started this series of blogs expressing concern about the Kalamazoo River, I have decided to investigate who is advocating for that waterway. And while I don’t live in the Kalamazoo River watershed, the river flows into Lake Michigan seven miles from my home. With predominantly southwest winds, it potentially affects the quality of my life as well as my drinking water.
It is worth finding out who is speaking for the river.
To be continued . . .
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