How well do you know your closest river? Even if you aren't sure where it is or what it's like, you're probably in a much closer relationship than you realize.

Most people rely on rivers for a variety of valuable ecosystem services, and not just obvious ones like water and fish. River floodplains often make excellent farmland, for example, while rivers themselves tend to create jobs and economic activity. Rivers can transport people and cargo, regulate erosion and flooding, provide wildlife habitat and soothing scenery, and support riparian forests that offer benefits of their own. Yet after generations of mistreatment, many rivers now rely on us, too.

That was the point of this month's National River Cleanup Day, an annual event that rallies thousands of Americans to spend a day enjoying and assisting local rivers. It's part of the National River Cleanup program, launched in 1991 by the nonprofit American Rivers, which lets local organizers register river cleanups in exchange for free trash bags, help with media coverage, volunteer promotion and technical support. More than 1.3 million volunteers have joined thousands of cleanups since then, covering 253,000 river miles and removing 25 million pounds of debris.

Chattahoochee River kayaking Kayakers emerge from mist on the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta. (Photo: Russell McLendon)

That may only be a drop in the bucket, but what if similar mass cleanups happened every month or every week? That's actually why we have holidays like this; whether it's Earth Day, Endangered Species Day, Mother's Day or Independence Day, the idea is to spark appreciation — and action — that outlasts the day itself. By encouraging thousands of people to take pride in their rivers, the National River Cleanup is part of a broad effort to help more Americans remove their ecological blinders and feel protective of their unique natural environments.

That would be worthwhile at almost any time, but it can be especially important as political winds shift. That's on display now, some conservationists say, as the Trump administration floats policies that could threaten decades of progress for U.S. rivers. When a government neglects a public resource like a river — which is hardly unprecedented in U.S. history — our hopes often fall to a loose coalition of citizen conservationists, both to protect the river and to replace the politicians who won't.

river cleanup at Clearwater River, Idaho Volunteers remove trash from Idaho's Clearwater River during a cleanup for National Public Lands Day in September 2017. (Photo: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Idaho/Flickr)

As volunteer events like river cleanups demonstrate, that coalition is open to anyone. But while most of us can only afford to be part-time conservationists, the coalition is sustained largely by a core network of full-time guardians, including many with an arcane-sounding job title like "riverkeeper," "baykeeper" or "waterkeeper."

You may have heard those terms before, but what do they mean? Do riverkeepers actually patrol their rivers? Can they enforce environmental laws? Who do they work for? In honor of these mysterious water wardens, here's a deeper look at the waterkeeper movement and its lessons for the future of citizen-led conservation.

What is a riverkeeper?

Cuyahoga River fire The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in 1969 due to sewage and industrial waste. (Photo: U.S. National Ocean Service)

As unhealthy as many U.S. waterways are today, they were generally even worse 50 years ago. Not only were rivers often myopically dammed or otherwise altered in the 20th century, but unchecked pollution was 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 10th such fire in 100 years.

Things were similarly bleak for New York's Hudson River, which by the mid-1960s was rife with toxic 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 to do what the authorities wouldn't, using an 1888 federal law to take on polluters directly. It worked.

pollution in the Hudson River, New York Debris floats on the Hudson River in New York City in May 1973. (Photo: Wil Blance/EPA/U.S. National Archives)

This was the origin of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, which renamed itself Riverkeeper in 1986. It was the first to use that term, although 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.

Nearly 20 years later, the alliance now includes more than 330 organizations and affiliates around the world, which collectively patrol and protect more than 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million square kilometers) of waterways on six continents.

Local groups must meet certain quality standards to join Waterkeeper Alliance, such as employing "a full-time, paid, non-governmental public advocate for the identified water body," who wears the Waterkeeper mark and serves as the water body's primary spokesperson. This person has the job title of riverkeeper (or baykeeper, coastkeeper, etc.), as does the organization itself. Alliance members are also required to maintain a clearly identified vessel "that is readily available and actively used for patrols," establish a phone number to help citizens report pollution, and advocate and enforce compliance with environmental laws, among other things.

"The business model really works," says Gordon Rogers, executive director and riverkeeper for Georgia's Flint Riverkeeper, which marks its 10th anniversary this year. "It's a nose-to-the-grindstone, get-up-and-do-it-every-day business model that really works. It's citizen-based, powered by the culture that's in a particular watershed. It works in a liberal area, it works in a conservative area — I call it transpartisan. It's not a political thing; it's a water thing."

What does a riverkeeper do?

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. (Photo: William Waldron/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

The original Riverkeeper found early success with two obscure federal laws: the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and the Refuse Act of 1899. Modern environmental laws like the Clean Water Act didn't exist yet, but these statutes did ban pollution of U.S. waters — and offered a bounty for whoever reported a violation. Riverkeeper soon won the first-ever bounty under the 19th-century laws, $2,000 from Penn Central Pipe, followed by even larger awards for exposing other illegal pollution.

Bounties provided Riverkeeper with the resources it needed to rescue the Hudson, says environmental attorney and Waterkeeper Alliance president Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who spent 33 years with Riverkeeper as an attorney and board member.

"They used that money to construct a boat, and they hired a full-time riverkeeper, a former commercial fisherman named John Cronin," Kennedy says. "He used bounty money to hire me in 1984 as the attorney, and since then we've brought over 500 successful legal actions against Hudson River polluters. And the Hudson today is an international model for ecosystem protection."

Hudson River, New York A view of the Hudson River in New York City at sunset. (Photo: Ryan Lewandowsk/Shutterstock)

While other groups do important work pushing for legislation, Kennedy says, the riverkeeper model focuses on citizen enforcement of existing laws.

"We have really good environmental laws in this country, but they're seldom enforced because the regulatory agencies become captured by the industries they're supposed to regulate," he says. "Fortunately, in every one of the 28 laws that we passed after Earth Day, we inserted a citizen's supervision that says — because we knew this was going to happen — when the government fails to enforce the law, and there's a law-breaker violating it, any citizen can step into the shoes of the United States attorney and prosecute the polluter, for penalties with the federal government and for injunctive relief. And that's what we do."

'When people connect, they protect'

Apalachicola River paddling trail The Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area Paddling Trail System boasts nearly 100 miles of untamed wilderness routes. (Photo: Peter Kleinhenz/Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/Flickr)

Waterkeeper Alliance groups must meet certain standards, but given all the environmental differences from one watershed to the next — and legal differences among countries — it's inevitably a loose, "bottom-up" coalition, Kennedy says. The job duties vary widely, with many keepers placing a heavy emphasis on community engagement, which can proactively protect a river by nurturing its local popularity.

"I can assuredly tell you that if you spend a day on our river, you will fall in love," says Georgia Ackerman, riverkeeper and executive director of Florida's Apalachicola Riverkeeper, which turns 20 in 2018. "Experiencing the river helps one understand its complexities and magnificence. We know that when 'people connect, they protect.'"

At the same time, she adds, riverkeepers are "law enforcement and firefighters of sorts," patrolling their watersheds so they can respond quickly to threats. Ackerman regularly patrols the Apalachicola by motor boat, kayak and foot, although she tends to find more allies than enemies. "All of these activities give me ample opportunities to meet and interact with people who live in the Apalachicola watershed and listen to their stories," she says. "Many of them rely on the river and bay for their livelihood."

boats near mouth of Apalachicola River in Florida Docked boats await the day at the mouth of the Apalachicola River in Florida. (Photo: patchattack/Flickr)

And even when a keeper does catch a polluter, there may still be a role for outreach and education before resorting to legal action. "Most of the polluters we interact with may not have known the right thing to do, or that they were actually causing an impact on the river system," says Jason Ulseth, riverkeeper for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Georgia. "So it's always best if we can work cooperatively and proactively with a polluter and get them to do the right thing without litigation."

Many waterways also face less obvious threats than they did decades ago, including complex, crowd-sourced problems like toxic urban stormwater, fertilizer-rich farm runoff, excessive public water usage and climate change. That doesn't mean old-school industrial pollution is a thing of the past; it just shows how much today's waterkeepers must evolve with the watersheds they've sworn to protect.

'At a crossroads'

John Day River, Oregon The John Day River, the longest undammed river in Oregon, is one of more than 200 Wild and Scenic Rivers across the U.S. (Photo: Bob Wick/U.S. Bureau of Land Management/Flickr)

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

One of those steps was the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, a law that marks its 50th anniversary this year. It was designed to preserve 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. (Many outdated U.S. dams are now being removed, too — 86 were torn down in 2017, according to American Rivers, beating the previous high of 78 dams in 2014.) Other steps focused more 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 had some notable success in its first 40 years, despite failing in its goal to make all U.S. waters "fishable and swimmable" by 1985. Along with other federal protections — and the countless efforts of citizen conservationists — it's one reason for the relatively non-horrifying state of many U.S. rivers today.

stars over Snake River, Idaho The Wild and Scenic Snake River flows under a clear night sky in Idaho. (Photo: Bob Wick/BLM/Flickr)

"We've made progress. Fifty years ago, our rivers were plagued by a lot of pollution. You couldn't swim in Portland's Willamette or Boston's Charles. Today, a lot of rivers are cleaner and people are embracing them as the heartbeat of city life," says Amy Kober, national communications director for American Rivers, which was founded in 1973. "But we're at a crossroads. The Trump administration is unraveling a lot of the safeguards we've grown to depend on for safe, clean water and healthy rivers."

"The biggest threat to our nation's water quality is sitting in the White House," adds Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The current administration is trying to weaken the clean-water protections that protect wetlands and the health of our rivers, lakes and other waterways."

Draining the swamp

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate subcommittee in May 2018. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Concerns like these are partly due to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose policies are often overshadowed by the flood of ethics investigations he faces. But Pruitt — a former Oklahoma attorney general and longtime antagonist of the agency he now leads — has also made some controversial moves related to environmental policy, including water quality. In April, for example, a leaked memo revealed Pruitt had ordered EPA regional offices to "cede their Clean Water Act determinations" to him, meaning key decisions about waterway preservation would be entirely up to Pruitt, cutting out EPA employees and scientists who work in the regions.

And in May, the Union of Concerned Scientists released emails, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that suggest Pruitt's EPA suppressed publication of a study on the health effects of certain toxic chemicals found in U.S. drinking water. The study would show these chemicals threaten human health at a much lower level than the EPA has deemed safe, according to the emails. Yet its release would be "a public relations nightmare," one Trump administration aide wrote in an email.

"The EPA used to be an agency that protected the environment, but now it has become this sock puppet for the industries it's supposed to regulate," Kennedy says.

Protecting waterways and their ecosystems "should be a nonpartisan issue," he adds. "Everybody wants clean air and clean water and enriching places to bring their children. And the opportunities for their kids to go fishing, and to eat the fish with the security of not poisoning themselves. Everybody wants those things, but the industry captures the political system because of the money."

Gulf of Mexico dead zone A large dead zone forms annually in the Gulf of Mexico, fed by farm runoff carried there by the Mississippi River. In 2017, the dead zone grew to a record 8,776 square miles. (Image: N. Rabalais, LSU/LUMCON/NOAA)

Rivers in the U.S. may rarely catch fire these days, but 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 (even in the Hudson River). In urban areas, stormwater often carries pollutants like gasoline, motor oil, lawn fertilizers and road salt into waterways and wetlands.

And while these diffuse sources of pollution can be especially hard to control, many waterways are also still besieged by traditional "point-source" pollution, too. This includes not just emissions from factories and power plants, but also less iconic forms of pollution — a stream polluted by toxic tailings from a nearby mine, for instance, or by petroleum from one of the country's frequent pipeline spills.

sign about 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill The 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill, which dumped about 1 million gallons of oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River, is one of several major U.S. pipeline spills in the past decade. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

"More than half our rivers and streams fail to meet one or more water-quality standard," says the NRDC's Jon Devine. And even in places where pollution isn't a big issue, water quantity often suffers due to development or water diversion. "The country continues to experience a net loss of wetlands," Devine adds, "and for the first time in 50 years, those losses are accelerating."

There's also climate change, a growing threat for U.S. waterways that rarely seems to interest the Trump administration. "Whether you live in a city, the mountains, a floodplain, a desert — anywhere — climate change is having an impact on your water," says Amy Kober of American Rivers. "We can expect more intense floods, longer droughts and water supplies that may not be reliable anymore.

"The good news is, healthy rivers are a community’s first defense against these problems," she adds. "Communities that are protecting their rivers and lands, and using water wisely, will be the ones to thrive."

Hope springs eternal

headwaters of Panther Run creek, Pennsylvania These spring-fed headwaters of Pennsylvania's Panther Run eventually flow into the Susquehanna River, which contributes about 50 percent of all freshwater entering the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)

Despite the current state of U.S. politics, there are reasons to be optimistic about American waterways. Not only is hope a practical necessity, Kennedy argues, but it's supported by the fact we already know how to fix much of what's broken.

"I'm realistic, but I don't think any of us have any choice but to be hopeful," Kennedy says. "And there is some reason for hope, because we have now the technology to solve most of our environmental problems. The question really is if we have the political will to adopt that technology. And how fast."

And while quick fixes are unlikely, especially for climate change, these aren't entirely uncharted waters. The threats may be evolving, but the U.S. has rallied before in response to a water-quality crisis. Even though we still haven't solved a lot of last century's problems, we have shown that, with the right tactics and organization, ordinary citizens are not powerless to protect their natural resources.

That may not be the same as government protection, but as Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers points out, citizen-led conservation is better than nothing. "We should not exist," he says. "The government should be doing the things we are doing, but we stand in the breach because governments are not standing up for clean-flowing water for all citizens. It's true in America and true in every other country."

And in a democracy, growing public sentiment on issues like this should eventually trickle up to the government. In keeping with the riverkeeper spirit, however, Kennedy argues the only way to make sure something happens is to do it yourself.

"People have to consider that it's much more important to change your politician than it is to change your light bulb, because the only thing that can save the planet is functioning democracy," he says. "And if we don't participate, if we don't own our democracy, somebody else is going to own it for us."

Of course, when you aren't busy voting or contacting your lawmakers, you could always swing by to see your local river. It might be good for both of you.

Why do rivers need riverkeepers?
When the government fails to protect a public resource like a river, our hopes often fall to a loose coalition of citizen conservationists.