By Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper
Once a year, Waterkeepers from all over the world gather for the Waterkeeper Alliance annual conference to learn, welcome the newest members of the movement, and get inspired. This year we met in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the shores of the Cape Fear River. In attendance were representatives of 293 Waterkeepers from 34 countries, including 32 new Keepers from the United States, Australia, China, Nepal, and the Bahamas.
Regardless of where they came from, each Keeper I met had two things in common: a deep connection to their watershed, and a unique set of challenges to overcome.
Among my new friends are new Waterkeepers from Alaska (Cook Inletkeeper and Inside Passage Keeper), the Snake Riverkeeper, the Bitterroot Riverkeeper, and the Rogue Riverkeeper. It was hugely valuable to me to network with these new Keepers, learn about their issues, and understand how they work to protect their waterways.
The Waterkeeper movement began in 1966 when commercial and recreational fishermen combined efforts to restore the once abundant fisheries in the Hudson River. These fishermen recognized that outspoken, citizen-led advocacy was the best way to ensure that laws were enforced and their river, livelihood and the health of their families were protected. In 1983, the first full-time Hudson Riverkeeper began patrolling the river, and in 1999 the Waterkeeper Alliance was founded to support similar programs around the world.
The goal of the movement is fishable, drinkable, swimmable waters everywhere. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the founder of the movement, and his book "The Riverkeepers" is a great read and details the history of the movement.
This year, we met in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the banks of the Cape Fear River. Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, greeted us on the first night and explained the many challenges and some of his major successes of his work to protect his river. His watershed is home to huge factory farms, including 5 million hogs, 16 million turkeys, and 300 million chickens — all housed in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that discharge massive waste into his river.
We learned all about these CAFOs, their impacts to poor communities, about the effect on water quality and about a growing Fair Farms movement whose goal is to modify the entire food system. What I gleaned was that whether we came from regions that produce grain, milk, meat, apples, or potatoes — the existing system strives to produce low-grade, export-oriented products. The Fair Farms movement strives to grow healthy food, treat farmers and animals well, and protect our land and waterways at the same time.
Flying home, I had a view of many of my favorite rivers and mountain ranges, and a clearer view of my challenges to protect waters of North Puget Sound. Our most serious challenge continues to be pollution from non-point sources: urban stormwater and agricultural runoff. Yesterday set a record for heat, reminding me that glaciers in the North Cascades have lost 50% of their mass since the start of the 20thcentury. The estimated 394 glaciers in the Skagit River headwaters provide 6-12% of the Skagit’s summer flow.
As these resources are depleted, we will face drastic changes including increased winter flows, decreased summer flows, and drastic effects on aquatic ecosystems and our increasing population.
Whether it’s the Atchafalaya, the Himalayan Glacier Headwaters, London Canals, the Mississippi, the Chattahoochee, the Snake or the Skagit River, helping to solve these problems increases my connection to this place, and I’m very thankful to be connected to this community and the Waterkeeper family.