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Clean Water Watchers

by Karen Levy

In tugs and sloops and rowboats, citizen watchdog groups have launched a campaign to protect America's waterways. The fleet includes autonomous organizations like WaterWatch, the Stream Team, Clearwater, and Surfrider, as well as the 70 chapters of the Waterkeeper Alliance. The movement began on the Hudson River in 1966, when folksinger Pete Seeger conceived the idea of using a 106-foot Dutch sloop, the Clearwater, to call attention to the river's plight. In 1983, the first full-time riverkeeper was hired on the Hudson. Since then, scores of other groups have organized to make good the Clean Water Act's promise of fishable, swimmable waterways. "We have some excellent water-quality laws on the books in this country," says Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's new Water Quality Monitoring and Enforcement Program. "They just aren't enforced."

The water monitors operate on a simple principle: People care about the streams, bays, sloughs, and coasts near their homes, and often know more about them than anyone else. With the proper equipment and training, they can be their waterways' most effective advocates.

"What we're doing is acquiring data," says Dye. "Agencies are all underfunded, all understaffed, and all slip into bureaucratic malaise. But even if the state doesn't collect the data, it has to pay attention to it."

In the Waterkeeper Alliance, each of the constituent groups--Baykeeper, Riverkeeper, Deltakeeper, and so forth--has a full-time ombudsperson, or "keeper," who watches over the local waterway through on-the-water patrols, water-quality enforcement, and environmental education. Keeper tactics vary from donning hip waders to swimming the 1,243 miles from the headwaters of the Columbia to its mouth, as Columbia Riverkeeper Chris Swain plans to do next June to raise awareness and money for the river he loves.

The aim of all these efforts is to involve citizens in the health of their local waterways. "There is nothing more terrifying to a decision-maker or a bureaucrat than an informed populace," says Dye. "It can move regulatory mountains."

You can contact the Waterkeeper Alliance at 78 North Broadway, E Building, White Plains, NY 10603; (914) 422-4410; www.keeper.org. For more information on the Sierra Club's Water Quality Monitoring and Enforcement Program, contact Scott Dye at 1007 N. College, Suite 1, Columbia, MO 65201; (573) 815-9250; scott.dye@sierraclub.org. For information about other water issues, visit the Sierra Club's Web site at www.sierraclub.org/cleanwater.

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