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From Legal Eagle to Water Guardian

As the South Riverkeeper, I am ­helping to make the river healthy for my children and yours

South Riverkeeper Jesse Iliff and son Baxter patrolling aboard the R/V Remedy.

Not too long ago, I was working in consumer-protection litigation. After law school, I took a job suing banks and shady lenders on behalf of consumers. That wasn’t where I really wanted to be.
    In law school at the University of Maryland, I had earned a certificate of concentration in environmental law. When I graduated in 2010, environmental law jobs weren’t as plentiful as I had hoped. So I sued banks instead.
    But to satisfy that part of my soul that wanted to do environmental law, I donated my legal services pro bono to the Chesapeake Legal Alliance. By day, I helped consumers. By night, I helped the Bay.
    I had success helping a homeowner’s association on the Severn River turn around a permit denial for a living shoreline. Not too long after, I saw that the South River Federation was looking for a Riverkeeper. I applied on the last day.
    The very next day, I met the president of the South River Federation’s Board of Directors at a community picnic in my Hillsmere neighborhood. He was working the grill. We chatted about the Riverkeeper job, and he told me about a South River Federation public kayak trip leaving from our community beach the next day.
    My wife, two-year-old son Baxter (he had never been on a kayak) and I paddled the three miles from Hillsmere to Harness Creek. I must have made an impression on my new boss and future co-workers. Despite the fact that I hit the president in the head with the paddle, I made it first to interviews, then the job. I became the South Riverkeeper in October, 2015.
    As part of my job, I spend a great deal of time out on the water, monitoring and doing enforcement work. I also work with volunteers and staff on stormwater remediation and pollution mitigation projects on the land.
    Even so, no two days as a Riverkeeper are the same, as I learned ­pretty quickly.
    For example, in March, Anne ­Arundel County asked for my help on an unlicensed dredging operation in Selby Bay. The marine operator was working after hours. The county ­doesn’t do enforcement after work hours.
    So I checked it out.
    It was not a day to be out in a small boat. Sustained 20mph wind at my back and stronger gusts whipped up some white caps that tested my sea legs and soaked me to the bone. I had on my life vest and was clipped into the ignition so that the engine would cut off if I got knocked into the water.
    I made the short journey down to the site only to find the ne’er-do-wells had caught wind of the enforcement action.
    They were gone.
    I headed back into the wind. Water was breaking over the bow, and it was cold. The impact knocked the cover off my outboard motor. I unclipped myself to fix the engine in the swells, taking extra care to ensure I wasn’t pitched into the drink.
    Apart from a dousing, I stayed onboard and made it back to our mooring at Oak Hill Marina with both R/V Remedy and myself intact.
    Most of my enforcement actions aren’t that harrowing. In fact, most of the time, if there are illegal activities, I simply call the landowner. I’d rather talk person-to-person than let it be deduced after the fact that I was responsible for alerting the authorities.
    Most of the people in the Severn River community are very supportive of the work of the Riverkeeper, especially when they find out we are a privately-funded organization. In fact, helping us clean up the river in 2015 were some 1,100 volunteers from walks of life from school children to scientists to inmates who come out to work on shoreline cleanups, tree-plantings, data collection, construction projects and water quality monitoring.
    I love this job because I am helping to make this river healthy for my children — and yours.  
    I invite you to join us. Learn more at

Jesse Iliff is the South Riverkeeper, based in Edgewater.