Last week, Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell and Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop joined Waterkeepers from all over the world for the biennial Waterkeeper Alliance conference.
More than 350 Riverkeeper programs in more than 45 countries belong to Waterkeeper Alliance.
This year’s conference started with a “Day of Action” and a visit to Capitol Hill, addressing water-quality issues with legislators. The following days were filled with workshops, networking and learning — about everything from lobbying legislators and codifying the Rights of Nature in state constitutions, to approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation learned from Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.
“It was energizing to be around amazing advocates from so many different places and hear how folks are working within their watersheds to take on problems and polluters,” Jill said.
“Coming back from the conference, I feel inspired and re-energized to take on challenges in the Neuse watershed, and I know I’m bringing back more tools from our community to help me do that work,” Sam said.
Sound Rivers’ two Riverkeepers also had the opportunity to participate in a Women in Waterkeeper ceremony, specifically focused on the women of the movement.
“During this gathering, we had time to connect, share and learn from other women about our experiences and unique challenges as women in the Waterkeeper movement, and we built some solidarity in that gathering that I know I’ll carry with me for the rest of my time here,” Sam said.
While the workshops and guest speakers were informative, Jill said it was the one-on-one connections, old and new, that made the most impact on her.
“One afternoon, I sat on the curb outside the hotel with an attorney from Hudson Riverkeeper asking for any wild legal strategies he had about how to address an expanding, unregulated poultry CAFO industry,” Jill said. “The Ottawa Riverkeeper stopped me in the hallway of the hotel — we had been in a workshop earlier in the day and she had some advice on questions I had raised about DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives.”
In a field where victories can seem few and far between — and hard-fought-for regardless of outcome — hearing about the wins of other Waterkeepers was inspirational for Sam.
“One waterkeeper from Florida spoke about how they successfully got blue-green algae on the radar of Floridians and worked with the state to develop a program to both track and alert the public when harmful algal blooms occur,” Sam said. “Another Waterkeeper spoke about how they successfully shut down a manufacturing plant pouring PFAS into their river; yet another spoke about winning a major lawsuit against a mining corporation polluting their watershed with heavy metals.”
The conference wasn’t all work, however. Highlights of the week included attending a Sacred Water Ceremony at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, a Washington Nationals baseball game and the Capitol Pride parade, touring the city on electric scooters, watching a New Orleans brass band perform, and singing a lot of karaoke, according to Jill.
In the midst of the parade, North Carolina Waterkeepers also hatched a plan: if the next annual conference aligns with the host city’s Pride week festivities, they’ll be entering a Waterkeeper boat float in the parade, and pair it a clean-up and an advocacy campaign on single-use plastics.
In all, Sound Rivers’ Riverkeepers got a lot of good information, and had a good time.
“More than anything, it was just really great to be around others who — though they may be dealing with issues and contexts wildly different than those we do here in eastern North Carolina — share the vision and hope for clean, healthy environments for everyone,” Jill said.