WATER QUALITY IS AN ISSUE THAT AFFECTS US ALL.
The building community is beginning to better understand the impact that managing sediment and storm-water runoff can have on communities. However, no one-size-fits-all solution exists. Each body of water has its own concerns, issues and challenges, so each body of water needs its own voice. That is where Waterkeepers come in. A Waterkeeper is a full-time, local advocate that is part investigator, part scientist and part lawyer. Local communities and conservation organizations around the world now employ Waterkeepers to help manage water issues in their areas. Serving the needs of these local advocates is an international network called the Waterkeeper Alliance, Irvington, N.Y. Eco-structure recently had a chance to chat with Steve Fleischli, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, about the organization’s history, accomplishments and goals.
ECO-STRUCTURE: HOW LONG HAS THE WATERKEEPER ALLIANCE BEEN IN EXISTENCE?
SF: The alliance became a formal corporate entity in 1999. The movement itself started in 1966 on the Hudson River [N.Y.] with the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, which grew into the Hudson Riverkeeper in 1983. That group became the first Waterkeeper in the U.S. By 1993, there were 10 Waterkeepers across the U.S. and they formed a loose alliance. By 1999 there were 25 of them; they all got together and agreed a more formal entity was needed to connect and support the movement.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT A WATERKEEPER IS?
[A Waterkeeper] essentially is a citizen watchdog for water resources, sort of an “aqua-cop.” He or she accepts personal responsibility for keeping the local waterway clean. By the requirements of Waterkeeper’s Alliance, a Waterkeeper has to be a full-time, paid advocate for his or her water body. A Waterkeeper often is paid by his or her own fundraising initiatives, along with local community organizations or foundations.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN GOALS OF THE ALLIANCE?
The alliance’s goals are to connect and support our local programs and provide a national and international voice for issues in common. We offer member organizations a number of different things. One is the support staff we have at the alliance offices in New York. For example, we have a number of lawyers and scientists on staff, as well as a staff economist. We’ll hold a Waterkeeper’s hand through many of the processes, educate him or her about how to file litigation against polluters, and help review environmental documentation. It’s also a network of resources. The great thing about the movement is that our members come from diverse backgrounds; if you don’t know an issue, chances are somebody else in the movement is familiar with it. Some Waterkeepers are scientists in their own right. Some are lawyers, former homemakers or former teachers; they all have different skills to offer.
WHAT WORK DOES THE ALLIANCE DO ON THE NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL LEVEL?
While a local Waterkeeper is responsible for cleaning up his or her local water body, he or she typically is not going to sue the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.] for some rule that’s not protective of water quality. That’s the alliance’s job. We have a number of lawsuits against the EPA, as well as various petitions in the international arena under the North American Free Trade Agreement. These are things our local programs would not engage in. We often partner with them on the issue, but our job is to provide a more national and international voice.
WHAT KINDS OF ISSUES CAUSE THE ALLIANCE TO SUE THE EPA? When we sue the EPA, it’s because of its lack of regulation or nonconformance with the Federal Clean Water Act. For example, the Clean Water Act will say that the EPA is supposed to do a particular thing to create regulations and rules for developers or power plants, so if the EPA does a poor job of that, we’ll sue the EPA. We sometimes sue individual polluters, but typically we partner with a local Waterkeeper to do that.
Credit: STEVE FLEISCHLI
HOW BIG AN ISSUE IS CLEAN WATER IN THE U.S.? DO YOU BELIEVE WATER QUALITY IS IMPROVING OR DECLINING? There’s no question it’s improved since the Federal Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972. In areas where we see very clear statements from Congress, like cleaning up sewage-treatment plants, we’ve seen great progress. In the last seven years or so, however, we’ve seen less enforcement and less importance placed on the regulatory framework. We are in jeopardy of backsliding.Between 30 and 40 percent of our waterways still do not accommodate all their beneficial uses. Beneficial uses are things like fishing, drinking and swimming. We still have quite a way to go, but we’re doing well compared to India. I’ve been to a river in Delhi that literally bubbles with methane because there is so much raw sewage in the water. I watch cities, like Atlanta, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, have massive sewage overflows and I think OK, we can fix these problems.
DO YOU THINK THE FOCUS ON GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE HAS DRAWN AWARENESS AWAY FROM OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES, SUCH AS WATER QUALITY?
I would say that’s probably a fair statement at a political level. Elected officials’ energies are largely devoted to global climate change and energy issues. But I think if you look at the general population, the significant challenges that global warming presents have helped elevate everyone’s knowledge about all environmental issues. While people might think about global climate change, they are more curious to understand all the other issues associated with environmental protection. I think it’s a very good thing and I’m not too worried about water getting lost in the mix with the general public.
IN WHAT WAYS DOES THE BUILDING AND CONSTRUCTION COMMUNITY IMPACT THE HEALTH OF WATERWAYS IN THE U.S. TODAY?
The two biggest impacts involve the quality and quantity of water associated with construction and development. Approximately 2.2 million acres [890340 hectares] of agricultural property and forests are converted to suburban and urban land uses each year, resulting in 80 million tons [73 million metric tons] of sediment entering our nation’s water bodies annually. That sediment can have huge impacts on our waterways, from clouding the light so photosynthetic organisms cannot propagate to burying critical spawning habitats.
There also are other pollutants associated with development. Where there are impervious surfaces, there are enormous quantities of oil, grease and other toxins on those surfaces. These wash off into our waterways and impact water quality. From a quantity standpoint, development can fundamentally alter the way a watershed functions. The Center for Watershed Protection [Ellicott City, Md.] has estimated that if a watershed has more than 10 percent impervious surface, it will fundamentally change that receiving water body. It will scour the banks and change the velocity of the flow, which then can scour the bottom and change that habitat for fisheries. So to address construction and development problems, we need to first control the flow, volume and velocity of water that comes off these sites. Second, we need to control the quality of the water that comes off these sites. Let’s make sure the water is clean and doesn’t impact the waterway.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO ACHIEVE THESE GOALS?
We encourage developers to install sedimentation basins and grassy swales, as well as incorporate storm-water controls into the design of development projects. Instead of building over the entire lot with 100 percent impervious surface, consider how that development will impact downstream uses and how the water will flow off the site. [Developers must] control water on-site as much as possible to prevent downstream impacts. We also encourage incorporating porous pavements, green roofs, sedimentation ponds and other sorts of natural features. In many cases we’ve found that it can be economically beneficial and increase property value to have storm-water features on-site.
WHAT KIND OF PROGRESS IS BEING MADE?
We succeeded in getting standard urban storm-water mitigation plans passed in Los Angeles to essentially require new development to treat or infiltrate the first 3/4 inch [19 mm] of runoff from sites. That was a big success for us. Many communities around the country are doing things like this. Many Waterkeepers fight with the development community to come together on meaningful numeric standards so we have an objective way to look at these issues. One of the problems in this country is there is a piecemeal approach to low-impact development across cities and states. Storm water impacts every single community, so every single Waterkeeper works on storm-water issues in one form or another. Every community has sewage and every community has storm water, so we have to focus on these issues. I think the more local communities lead, the better off we’re going to be. I would not look to the federal government to solve these problems. I think it can help set a baseline, but leadership has to come from a local level.
DO YOU FIND YOUR WORK REWARDING?
If you would have asked me when I was 10 years old what I’d want to do, this is what my dream job would have been.
Based in Irvington, N.Y., the Waterkeeper Alliance has 172 members on six continents. It is the international center of a network of Waterkeeper programs.The alliance approves new programs, represents the individual Waterkeepers on issues of national interest, and serves as a network for Waterkeepers to exchange information and strategy. The organization's mission is to champion clean water and strong communities.
The Waterkeeper Alliance publishes a quarterly magazine called Waterkeeper, available on the alliance website, www.waterkeeper.org.