What Do Riverkeepers Do? History and Environmental Policy

Without riverkeepers, water pollution would be even more problematic.

Fast Speedboat
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Every year, thousands of Americans participate in the National River Cleanup Day, rolling up their sleeves to collect trash that clogs waterways and threatens wildlife. Part of the National River Cleanup Program, launched in 1991 by the nonprofit American Rivers, the event rallies communities to become good stewards of local waterways. 

Because most of us can only afford to be part-time conservationists, the day-to-day work is sustained largely by a core network of full-time guardians, including many with an arcane-sounding job title like "riverkeeper," "baykeeper," or "waterkeeper." Here's a deeper look at the waterkeeper movement and its lessons for future citizen-led conservation.

The Beginning of Riverkeeping

Cuyahoga River fire
The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in 1969 due to sewage and industrial waste.

U.S. National Ocean Service / Public Domain

As unhealthy as many U.S. waterways are today, they were often worse 50 years ago. Not only were rivers myopically dammed or otherwise altered in the 20th century; unchecked pollution was also poisoning aquatic ecosystems all over the map.

River fires had become surprisingly common. The infamous 1969 blaze on Ohio's Cuyahoga, for example, was the river's tenth in 100 years.

Things were similarly bleak for New York's Hudson River, which, by the mid-1960s, was rife with industrial waste and sewage. This began to inspire various citizen-led interventions, including advocacy groups like Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, founded by folk singer Pete Seeger in 1966. The effects on fish also angered local anglers, who banded together in 1966 using an 1888 federal law to take on polluters directly. It worked.

This was the origin of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, renamed Riverkeeper in 1986. Other conservation groups around the country soon borrowed its name along with its successful tactics. In 1999, the Waterkeeper Alliance was founded as an umbrella organization to unite and support all the various "keeper" groups in the U.S. and abroad.

Today, the alliance includes more than 330 organizations and affiliates around the world, which collectively patrol and protect more than 2.5 million square miles of waterways on six continents.

Environmental Policy Around Riverkeeping

Hudson Falls General Electric Plant, New York
New York's Hudson River was plagued by a wide range of toxic pollutants before the 1970s, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from this General Electric plant.

William Waldron / Newsmakers / Getty Images

Riverkeeper found early success with two federal laws: the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and the Refuse Act of 1899. These statutes banned pollution of U.S. waters and offered a bounty for whoever reported a violation. Riverkeeper soon won the first-ever bounty of $2,000, followed by even larger awards for exposing illegal pollution.

Bounties provided Riverkeeper with the resources to rescue the Hudson, said environmental attorney and Waterkeeper Alliance president Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who spent 33 years as a Riverkeeper attorney and board member. "They used that money to construct a boat, and they hired a full-time riverkeeper... And the Hudson today is an international model for ecosystem protection."

As the original Riverkeeper was still in its early days, the American public was also waking up to the plight of national waterways. Public pressure soon compelled Congress and the White House to take bigger steps toward protecting ecosystems.

One step was the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. It preserved the natural flow of certain rivers from dams or other developments, a service it now provides for more than 12,000 miles of 200 rivers across 40 states and Puerto Rico. Other steps focused on curbing pollution, such as the 1970 birth of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the 1972 passage of the federal Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act, along with other federal protections and countless efforts of citizen conservationists, are reasons for the improved state of many U.S. rivers.

Responsibilities of Riverkeepers

Today, riverkeepers work to protect rivers by monitoring waterways and finding and addressing any sources of pollution. They have a variety of methods for doing so.

The Riverkeeper organization monitors via patrol boat, logging about 5,600 nautical miles on the Hudson River. John Lipscomb, the captain of Riverkeeper's patrol boat, currently maintains the organization's Water Quality Testing Program, which measures oxygen levels, temperature, bacteria, and more at 74 different sampling sites.

In addition to testing the quality of the water, Riverkeeper holds investigations of potential polluters. Staff will determine whether a person or party has violated the Clean Water Act. Typically, Riverkeeper finds opportunities for educating polluters—particularly if they did not recognize the harm in their actions—but for more severe cases, staff determines the appropriate legal action.

Modern Environmental Threats

Riverkeepers also must deal with a host of environmental factors, both related to climate change and direct, human-caused damages.

While rivers in the U.S. rarely catch fire these days, flames are hardly the only sign of water pollution. Low-oxygen "dead zones" often form in waters burdened by nutrient-rich farm runoff, for example, while wild fish are increasingly contaminated by things like endocrine-disrupting chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In urban areas, stormwater carries pollutants like gasoline, motor oil, lawn fertilizers, and road salt into waterways and wetlands. 

Many waterways are still besieged by traditional point-source pollution, too. This includes things like emissions from factories and power plants, toxic tailings from mines, and petroleum from pipeline spills and abandoned wells.