On World Water Day, Meet the Sierra Club's New Clean Water Director

Beth Roach grew up by Virginia’s James River in the 1980s when it was heavily polluted. Watching the river’s quality improve via citizen and policy work over the decades has been an inspiration. 

“In my life, I’ve seen an ecosystem that was completely devastated rebound and enter this resilient stage because of policy makers and public outcry and better practices,” said Roach. “I don’t remember seeing eagles or great blue herons while growing up, but now they’re a common sight.”

That experience makes Roach optimistic about the change that can be made through the new Sierra Club Clean Water, Toxics, and Resilience Campaign. Today Roach steps in to direct the new campaign and says the Sierra Club is positioned to look at the breadth of water and toxic pollution issues across our nation in a way no other organization can.

In the United States, the burden posed by toxic chemicals, cost of drinking and wastewater services, and access to clean water falls most heavily on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and other marginalized communities. Policies designed to address environmental issues frequently fail to identify and address the root causes of these inequities, and thus fail to fully protect the people most impacted by environmental harms

“We can look at the intersectionality of a lot of different issues that impact water – contamination and climate change, for example,” said Roach. “If we spend time looking at the issues, we’ll create positive change. We know that it’s a broad issue, but we also know that it’s something we cannot ignore.”

Roach brings her experience from the 2019 Women’s Earth Alliance US Grassroots Accelerator for Women Environmental Leaders to the new position, as well as her extensive work on water issues, Tribal issues, and her current work with Sierra Club Virginia. She’s also the co-founder of the Alliance of Native Seedkeepers.

“I bring with me more than a decade of experience of wanting to do more and seeing the need to do more,” said Roach, a member of the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia. “We want to focus on historically marginalized communities and part of this is really looking through the history of colonization that has led to these barriers.” 

The Clean Water and Toxic Chemicals program will bring the Sierra Club's resources to amplify and expand local efforts. “You can’t organize effectively unless you understand the background of communities,” said Roach. 

History and the environment are intertwined and those stories need to be told, added Roach, that’s one important way that change is effected. 

"I'm thrilled to connect the power of the Sierra Club with water protectors in communities we have not always supported,” she said. “People need access to policy change and grassroots support and all of the things that really make a movement spark.”

The Clean Water, Toxics, and Resilience Campaign will build bottom up strategies to address complex issues related to water quality, water management, pollution prevention and climate resilience. The campaign aims to guarantee access and quality of water and a healthy environment for future generations.

Roach encourages people to get involved by determining your local watershed and water source. Observe it and get to know it, she said. Find out who’s active in water quality issues in your community. She believes everyone can make a difference.

“Nature knows what it needs to do, we just need to support what’s happening in a really mindful way,” said Roach. “It’s how we take care of the world we live in, it’s how we tell all the stories in a way that protects and preserves heritage but also makes us active participants in designing the future of it.”

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