Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper heads for higher ground

Sound Rivers

Posted on May 25th, 2023

Jill has been an incredible advocate for the Tar-Pamlico River and communities. While we are surely sad to see her go, I am very excited for her and this new opportunity to protect Maine’s waters and continue her amazing efforts to fight for environmental justice.

— Heather Deck, Sound Rivers Executive Director

Well, Jill is leaving us. She has truly seen the light: she’s heading to higher ground before hurricane season starts; hightailing it out of here before eastern North Carolina is buried beneath a couple feet of sea level rise …

No, not really — but, Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell is setting out on a new adventure. She’s heading north to take the lead role at Upstream Watch, a small environmental organization that’s been working to protect the waters of mid-coast Maine and Penobscot Bay. We, at Sound Rivers, are going to greatly miss her enduring idealism, and unwavering and strangely inspiring pessimism about all things environmental.

We will especially miss her First Mate, Adventure Pup and Sound Rivers’ Office Dog, Miller, who has grown from puppydom to handsome young lad under the staff’s watch.

It’s a great move for Jill — executive director with the potential to start a Riverkeeper program — that takes her back to her old college stomping grounds and closer to her home in Boston. In Maine, she will presumably resume speaking with the native Boston accent she occasionally lets slip, and will therefore be unintelligible to us Southerners, even though we also drop all our R’s … just in a different (better) way.

“It felt like a unique opportunity to be able to not just take the executive director role but the role at an organization that is new, and figure out how they want to go about doing advocacy and enforcement work in the region. Being there at the start of this organization is exciting — to be able to be there and build this out. It also gets me back closer to home, to friends and family up there,” Jill said.

Jill joined the staff of Sound Rivers in June of 2019 as the environmental projects manager, but when Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Forrest English left in August that same year, Jill jumped right into the Riverkeeper role, where she has been a staunch advocate for not only the Tar-Pamlico, but, as advocacy program manager, the Neuse, as well. Along the way, she’s had some great wins, one of which was helping a community prevent local authorities from allowing rural land abutting a historic, Black neighborhood from being turned into a landfill in Kittrell.

Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell singlehandedly pulled these tires from the Tar River in a single day. (Not really.)

“On a grand scale, if that had gone in, the impacts in the Tar River would have been incremental, but it would have been life-altering for the neighbors living around the landfill and devastating to the smaller creeks running through the property where the landfill was proposed,” Jill said.

She also made quite a few memories during her Sound Rivers’ tenure — which will heretofore be used to warm her up on those sub-zero, wading-through-four-feet-of-snow-with-icicles-hanging-from-her-nose nights — most of them having to do with Miller and kayaks.

“Seeing Miller in a life jacket was adorable,” Jill said of two of the three days-long paddles exploring the watersheds that she will now abandon to their fates. (See photo of Miller in a life jacket above. Pretty cute, eh?)

In October 2020, Jill and Sound Rivers’ Program Director Clay Barber kayaked 10 days down the Tar River from Oxford to Washington (before Miller); October 2021, the two took to the Tar-Pamlico again, this time paddling five days down the Pamlico and up some of its tributaries from Washington to Swan Quarter; and in October 2022, Jill, Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop and Oregon’s Rogue Riverkeeper Emily Bowes paddled 10 days down the Neuse from Smithfield to just west of New Bern (Hurricane Ian forced them out of the water one day, with the last day cut short by high wind and waves on the Neuse).

“What I loved about the paddle trips was being able to have seen almost the entire Tar-Pamlico River minus the part at the top, where there’s not really public access, to heading out to the sound at Swan Quarter. That felt like a huge accomplishment — learning about the river and coordinating such a huge endeavor,” Jill said. “The best parts were meeting people at the end of the day: having a fish fry at Bob Daw’s house on Blounts Creek with a bunch of people after that long paddle day, and arriving in Seven Springs on the Neuse and the mayor, Ronda, having us over to eat there.”

There are some not-so-great memories that she would prefer to leave behind, but will likely give her the heebie-jeebies regardless of how much distance she’s put between her and Nahunta Swamp, where she fell into hog-waste-polluted water, and the Tar River, where on one night of camping “there were too many spiders to count,” Jill recalled, with a still-horrified expression. “They were everywhere. When we shined our flashlights, there were thousands of eyes shining back at us. And there was nothing to do — it was raining, it was dark, and by the time we realized there were spiders, it was too late. I don’t know which was worse, that, or falling into Nahunta Swamp.”

Our not-so-greatest memory of Jill will be the day she leaves us for good. And the truly horrendous mess she calls a desk.

With typical, yet at this point admirable, pessimism, Jill said her successor will have their work cut out for them: “What should the next Riverkeeper focus on? Everything. There is so much that a Riverkeeper could dig into the work on. It seems like there is an ever-growing list of issues and constant rollback of regulations and DEQ is so underfunded they’re struggling to do their jobs. I think the next Riverkeeper is going to have to focus in on a few issues and focus on what’s most pressing and rely on partners for everything else. There’s only so much we can do.”

Jill will be with Sound Rivers until June 30. If you’d like to send her a word of encouragement or a thank you note for all her very hard work over the past four years, you can email her at

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