view counter

The Chesapeake Waterkeepers

The Bay’s 19 riverkeepers are part of a worldwide force of 275

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

–Dr. Seuss: The Lorax


Caring a lot is what Riverkeepers do. They keep our rivers and waterways. Each Riverkeeper — Baykeeper, Coastkeeper or Harborkeeper — is one person who monitors and maintains the health and stability of their river and its tributaries. They’re like a neighborhood watch for our rivers.
    In the Chesapeake Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, which traverses seven states — Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and New York — and the District of Columbia, we have lots of water to care for. The Bay and its tidal tributaries provide 11,684 miles of beautiful shoreline — more shoreline than the entire U.S. West Coast.
    In Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, Riverkeepers keep the Severn, South, Patuxent and West/Rhode rivers. They each bring a different perspective and history to the job, thus a different approach.
    The West/Rhode Riverkeeper, Jeff Holland, is the former director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum. He brings a couple decades of marketing and communications experience to keeping his rivers.
    Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, a former journalist, spent 27 years traveling the world, working for news outlets including the BBC. After he returned stateside, he went to law school and later became the advocate for the Patuxent, where he fished and played as a child.
    Fred Kelly, who keeps the Severn River, and Jesse Iliff, the South Riverkeeper are both attorneys who worked in the environmental field before becoming watchdogs of their rivers.
    Job by job, all are working on a mission: swimmable, drinkable, fishable waterways. As Riverkeepers, we are part of a network of 275-plus Waterkeepers in 34 countries around the world.
    Riverkeeping began in New York state, with the Hudson Riverkeeper. As with our own Bay, people started to recognize there was trouble in the waters in the 1960s.
     That first Riverkeeper came to be because a fisherman on the Hudson was outraged that fish were being killed in a nearby power plant’s intake pipes. He sued the power plant as a citizen (on behalf of the environment) — and won. That case set an important legal precedent and inspired a movement to hold polluters accountable for the environmental damage they were causing.
    In the Chesapeake, finger-pointing went in all directions. But it wasn’t a single power plant causing the problems. Our pollution isn’t just sewage outfalls … or industrial pollution … or stormwater … or agricultural nutrient runoff … or overfishing … or all of the other things humans undertake.
    Damage to the Bay was not — and is not — one thing. It’s all of it.
    With the legal precedent set in New York back in the 1980s, citizen advocates could speak on behalf of our rivers. They could hold polluters accountable.
    Locally, the first conservancy organization to hire a Riverkeeper was the South River Federation, which got its start in 1999.
    Throughout the Chesapeake, we have 19 keepers. Often behind each one is a supporting organization, maybe with staff, certainly with volunteers. On the Eastern Shore, our Riverkeepers and Coastkeepers watch over the Sassafras, Chester, Choptank, Miles/Wye rivers and the Assateague Coast and Virginia Coast. We also have Riverkeepers on the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, the Potomac and Shenandoah in Virginia, the Anacostia in Maryland and D.C., and the James in Virginia.
    In the past couple of years, our Chesapeake keepers have banded together as a coalition: Waterkeepers Chesapeake.
    In partnership with Bay Weekly, we’ll be introducing our local Riverkeepers — one a month — and keeping you up to date on their pollution and enforcement work right here on our rivers.
     In April, look for a profile of West/Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland.