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Meet the Riverkeepers

Meet citizen riverkeepers from Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Washington D.C.

FRED TUTMAN, CEO of Patuxent Riverkeeper

Fred Tutman

“I think water draws people together,” says Fred Tutman.

Tutman left law school to found Patuxent Riverkeeper in 2004. “I was a part-time advocate working on my river for years,” he says. “It had never occurred to me that you could make a career of protecting your water. But when I found it, I knew my future had river-keeping in it.”

Tutman’s group advocates on behalf of the 110-mile Patuxent River and the one million people who live in its watershed, which spans seven counties in Maryland. The group’s water trail crews, which monitor water quality and lead clean-up projects, are modeled after Appalachian Trail crews Tutman has served on. And Patuxent Riverkeeper, along with three other environmental organizations, is currently filing suit against an energy company for landfill discharge that has been polluting groundwater in the region.

“We have a watershed-wide movement working up and down the whole river to solve problems affecting our water. That’s huge. That’s never been done on our river before.”

 

SALLY BETHEA, Executive Director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

Sally Bethea

“I’ve always been attracted to David and Goliath types of challenges,” says Sally Bethea.

Bethea, who grew up near the Chattahoochee River, got involved in the environmental movement in the 1970s. “I really liked advocacy. And I was pretty incensed to learn the kinds of pollution problems that occur. I got mad.”

When she cofounded Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in 1994, the river was in a state of deep neglect, with regular reports of sewage overflows, creek banks lined with garbage, and streams so malodorous families wouldn’t venture into their backyards.

The group has removed nearly 1,000 tons of debris from local waterways and successfully sued the City of Atlanta for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“I think it’s incredibly empowering and wonderful seeing people make a personal connection to a river that is a part of our daily lives,” says Bethea. “I have been sustained by this river.”

 

CHERYL NENN, Riverkeeper with Milwaukee Riverkeeper

Cheryl Nenn

“I hope by the time I die some of these rivers will be fishable and swimmable and drinkable and an asset to the community” says Cheryl Nenn.

For eight years, Nenn has worked with Milwaukee Riverkeeper, monitoring the land around three rivers and identifying sources of pollution. She is also a regular fixture at community meetings, advocating for watershed protection. “It’s not always fun going to these public hearings from seven to 10 at night. But there’s always that local person there who’s trying to protect their river. I get energy from those people.”

The group has performed massive clean-up projects and filed lawsuits. It also works to recruit community members to act as stewards for the local watershed. “There’s always going to be a need for advocates to protect waterways because pressure on the [polluters] is not too extreme. We really need people to be voices for these rivers.”


Margit Christenson wrote this article for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Margit is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Interested?

  • Urban Wilderness: Milwaukee's Menomonee River watershed is an urban wilderness, and it is something that should and can exist in every American town and city.
  • Waterkeeper Alliance: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. introduces the work of the Waterkeeper Alliance.
  • Restoring Nature, Restoring Yourself: A dying man thought he’d spend his last days cleaning a small creek behind his house. Did he save the creek? Or was it the creek that saved him?

 

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