In early May, over 700 people gathered in Portland, Oregon for what may have been the largest meeting of river advocates in history. I was one of them.
For the first time, the annual Waterkeeper Alliance conference was combined with the River Network’s River Rally. Passionate advocates from across the globe convened to share their stories and learn from each other. This year’s conference included not only the 200 Waterkeepers that are like family now, but also a whole suite of other hard-working groups fighting for clean water and restored waterways. According to the organizers, there were attendees from more than 40 U.S. states as well as Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, India, Iraq, Mexico, Peru, Senegal and the United Kingdom.
At the conference, we heard from a number of distinguished speakers, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr (president of Waterkeeper Alliance), Alexandra Cousteau, and EPA Director Lisa Jackson. My favorite speaker of the conference, however, was Gerald Lewis, a Yakama Nation Tribal Councilman and Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman. Mr. Lewis gave a Tribal Invocation that opened the conference on the first night. He spoke of the humble beginnings of each waterway as a small trickle, and then described its path to the sea, combining
with other streams, getting bigger and more powerful. “Along the way it gathers all these thoughts,” he said, “all these powers through the wind, through the sun, through the rain. It gathers this power. And this is what gives us the strength to continue on within our walk of life today.” He then sung an ancestral chant in his native tongue, and rung an ancient bell in an incredibly moving ceremonial invocation.
Part of the challenge that faces small groups like West/Rhode Riverkeeper is maintaining the drive and enthusiasm to affect positive change day after day with limited resources. Convening with other “water warriors” helps keep us inspired and motivated to work with our community to improve the health of our rivers. At the conference, we all share in the victories when we hear about a polluter being sued on the Hudson, or a dam being removed on a salmon river in the Pacific Northwest. And other groups appreciate our research and insight into what makes an effective Report Card.
The Waterkeeper model of local based advocacy to protect our waterways is a proven one. What makes us special is that we concentrate on specific rivers (or creeks, or lakes, or coastlines) to do everything we can to stop pollution from contaminating the natural resources that we depend on. Many other groups at the conference besides Waterkeepers are working to the same end. Convening with 700 people from across the globe that are all doing the same thing and practicing the same philosophy gave me a great optimism that working together, we can make a big difference.
However, even combining the efforts of these 700 river advocates is not enough to clean up the rivers, creeks, and streams alone. We need you. Our members, supporters and volunteers are the reason we are able to exist, and you help us do the critical work in our watershed to reduce pollution. Whether conducting our volunteer water quality monitoring, helping to plant a rain garden, or responding to an action alert by contacting our elected officials, YOU are the engine of West/Rhode Riverkeeper.
As much as I was inspired by the conference in Portland, I am inspired every day by the passion and efforts of our supporters right here in South County. Let’s keep up the good work!