In the mid-1960s, fishermen on New York’s Hudson River noticed that they were hauling in fewer fish. The culprit, obvious to anyone paying attention, was polluted water. And so this group of recreational and commercial fishermen banded together to patrol the river, identify problems, and force polluters to clean up their mess. The Hudson River Fishermen’s Association morphed into the Hudson Riverkeeper, rooting their activism in the long-held Roman legal ideal of the public trust doctrine: Water belongs to everyone. Today, the water in the Hudson River is cleaner than it’s been in 50 years.
The Hudson Riverkeeper is among the 342 waterkeepers in 44 countries around the world, guardians of almost eight-million square kilometres of waterways that impact around one billion people. “The Hudson River has become an international icon of ecosystem revitalization that has inspired communities around the world to replicate their model,” says Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, the umbrella organization for these grassroots groups around the world.
One such waterkeeper organization is smack-dab in Ontario cottage country. David Sweetnam, executive director of Georgian Bay Forever, has monitored the impact climate change is having on his beloved bay, including a two percent increase in average water temperature, 71 percent decline in ice cover, and increased wind speeds, all of which have reduced the amount of whitefish and lake trout eggs being laid. To compound the Bay’s issues, a recent pilot project revealed the presence of plastic from microfibre clothes in the water. “We’re consuming our own garbage,” says Sweetnam, who, together with University of Toronto, is testing filters on washing machines to hopefully divert the microfibres from getting into the watershed.
It’s those types of grassroots projects that inspire Marc Yaggi. “With the magnitude of the global water climate crisis, we really believe that highly trained effective local leaders are critical,” says Yaggi. The global Waterkeeper Alliance is committed to having these trained leaders on every habitable watershed on the planet in the next two decades.
At this point, Canada has nine, including a Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an Ottawa Riverkeeper and a Fundy Baykeeper, along with the Georgian Baykeeper. But with the Waterkeeper Alliance putting its short-term focus on 15 “iconic and endangered waterways,” says Yaggi, including both Lake Huron and Lake Superior, there’s room for more Canadian engagement.
“Water is one of the most valuable things we have,” says Yaggi. Waterkeepers, he says, “serve as the eyes, ears and voice of the community.”
To get involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance, visit waterkeeper.org.