If you’re like me, you know how easy it is to worry about the ongoing protection of our environment. After all, the verdant forests and rivers don’t have voices to tell careless people not to dump their weekend’s worth of trash in the woods. And oceans can’t tell a power plant to stifle its emissions. Thankfully, during my internship at Save The Bay, I’ve met three strong voices that speak on behalf of the treasured natural resources of this community, Narragansett Bay and its watershed in particular. Those voices belong to Save The Bay’s Waterkeepers.
Meet Tom Kutcher, David Prescott and Rachel Calabro, Save The Bay’s Baykeeper, Coastkeeper and Riverkeeper, respectively. Not just job titles, these are all formal designations of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which supports local Waterkeeper organizations in providing confident, assertive voices for important waterways around the world. The word “keeper” is an ancient concept from Europe, in which people were charged with looking out for their rivers. At Save The Bay, the title embodies the personal responsibility these keepers feel for taking care of our waters.
Waterkeepers must meet certain quality-assurance guidelines, maintain vessels that are actively used to patrol their assigned waterbodies, have publicly-available phone numbers for citizens to report pollution incidents or concerns and respond to citizen complaints. Save The Bay employed its first Baykeeper in 1992, added a Coastkeeper in 2008, and just this year, applied for and received its Riverkeeper license, strengthening the organization’s voice in the vast 1,754-square-mile watershed region.
As I interviewed these three, my worries about the health of our local environment were calmed. For I clearly understood that their work is much more than a job; it’s a passion.
Tom Kutcher serves as Narragansett Baykeeper, regularly patrolling the waters of upper Narragansett Bay on the lookout for blatant pollution and other signs of water quality crises. He’s not an enforcement officer—in fact, none of the Waterkeepers have authority to enforce environmental laws—but brings attention to violations and presses enforcement agencies to invoke the laws that protect watershed areas around the state. “I’m pretty much an environmental watchdog and advocate for the Bay,” said Kutcher, in his signature, well-worn Save The Bay ball cap and T-shirt.
As part of Save The Bay’s advocacy team, all three Waterkeepers have the credibility and community influence needed to fight for legislation and policy that protect our waters. For example, Kutcher is a wetlands scientist who served on a legislative task force comprised of stakeholders from the building, municipal and engineering communities. As part of this task force, he helped convince state legislators to pass a landmark Wetlands Act that expands wetlands protections for the first time in 45 years. “I talked to people on both sides about my ideas to get this bill passed, something that would help out both ends of the argument,” he said.
For the Baykeeper, the work is personal. He’s a fisherman, surfer and boater who has been intimately connected to the Bay his entire life. “I grew up not far from Narragansett Bay. I fished, I swam, I quahogged. I took boats out there; all my childhood pastimes were on the Bay,” Kutcher said. He wants to leave it in better shape for his children and the next generations.
South County Coastkeeper
As the South County Coastkeeper, David Prescott provides a visible on-the-water presence on Little Narragansett Bay and along Rhode Island’s south coast, from Narragansett into the waters of eastern Connecticut, where some of the Bay’s most ecologically important and vital habitats exist.
Working out of Save The Bay’s South Coast Center in Westerly, his work is uniquely challenged by the fact that the Pawcatuck River and Little Narragansett Bay form the border between two states. Besides monitoring water quality and patrolling local waters for problems, a good portion of his time is spent building strong collaborative relationships with environmental organizations and town council members in both Rhode Island and Connecticut. Last year, after a seven-year study of water quality conditions in Little Narragansett Bay, he united key leaders from both sides of the Pawcatuck River in a call to action for community-wide steps to save Little Narragansett Bay. That call in 2015 launched an ongoing and almost unheard of bi-state collaboration to reduce human impacts on these waters.
An avid surfer who spends as much time working on the water as he does enjoying it with his family and children, Prescott plainly remembers getting very sick from surfing in sewage-laden waters after a big storm. “That’s why I want to make sure the Bay is safe and healthy for everyone.”
In early 2016, Save The Bay proudly introduced its first Riverkeeper in Rachel Calabro. Though the designation is new, her role as an ambassador for the inland waterways of the Taunton and Blackstone rivers is not. The two major Bay tributaries, which lie largely in Massachusetts, have been subject to plenty of development and damage over the years. “Migratory fish use these rivers to breed and then swim out to the Bay, so I am on the lookout for illegal dumping of waste or other hazards into the rivers and wetlands. I speak for the fish,” Calabro said.
Indeed, a smile lights up Calabro’s face as she describes her love of fish in a way that made me think she must surely swim with them every day. “Fish are just awesome. I love learning about them. I loved nature, animals and the water when I was growing up. I always wanted to be a part of it in some way,” she said.
Like Prescott, Calabro’s work takes her across state lines, making her former role with the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration an environmental advantage. In a 10-year project in Taunton, she collaborated with the Army Corps of Engineers, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, individual property owners, and a community of recreational anglers to remove three dams on the Taunton River and install a fish ladder at a fourth dam, restoring miles of breeding ground to river herring that had been kept out.
Over the years, the Waterkeepers have seen the Bay’s biggest threat—human impact— evolve from deliberate and conspicuous large-scale pollution inputs to the cumulative effects of small-scale pollution by millions of individuals—subtler, and in many ways, more challenging. But they face their work with hopeful optimism, eager to offer solutions to the problems that threaten the Bay. While they agree that their continued vigilance is only one part of the healthy longevity of our waters, they give my own worries about my local environment some peace. Because I now know that the Baykeeper, Coastkeeper and Riverkeeper are the watchful eyes of our Bay, working to keep our waters safe, and the strong voices to speak up in times of need.