A citizen armada searches waterways for polluters

Activists from the Water Keeper Alliance supplement the enforcement of the Clean Water Act

As his 17-foot Boston Whaler bobs beneath the barnacled piers of Los Angeles harbor, Steve Fleischli scans for signs of metallic-slurry bleeding into the bay from massive piles of scrap metal on shore. His vigilance pays off. He sights trickles of rust-colored water oozing over the pilings and banks into the surf.

Mr. Fleischli takes several samples of the rusty water. Test results will be used as evidence to try to halt the scrap operation from polluting.

On waterways across the country self-styled environmental cops such as Fleischli are stepping in to boost enforcement of environmental laws. Called "Keepers," these citizen watchdogs get their authority from the 1972 Clean Water Act, which empowers citizens to bring legal actions where - for lack of staff or funds - local, state, and federal governments have not.

Even today, 25 years after the Clean Water Act became law, there's ample cause for such activism. While water quality has measurably improved since the 1970s, 40 percent of US waterways remain too polluted for fishing and swimming.

Over the weekend the Clinton administration signed off on new regulations to improve that record. If they become final, the laws would compel states, for the first time, to set a cap on the pollution entering waterways and would force them to decide how to reduce contaminants from sources such as factories, sewage treatment plants, farm fields, and city streets.

For the 35 Keeper programs around the country - each of which can include a small army of volunteers - the focus is on finding and stopping illegal polluters.

Modeled after a program begun by John Cronin, who began tracking polluters in the Hudson River area in 1983, Keeper groups are now located throughout the United States and Canada. They now monitor rivers, sounds, bays, inlets, channels, and coastlines.

"We are the watchdog for what government agencies are doing," says Fleischli, who three months ago left a lucrative job as a corporate lawyer to take up the Santa Monica BayKeeper post.

For example, says Fleischli, the California water resources control board has only two inspectors to monitor as many as 30,000 storm drains in the Los Angeles area. Into that gap comes the Santa Monica BayKeepers, with its staff of two, eight divers who help monitor water conditions and take samples, and 300 volunteers who daily and weekly monitor assigned storm drains.

BayKeepers, a nonprofit corporation, also retains six to eight lawyers. Funded by foundations, gifts, grants, and members, the operation - like most Keeper programs - runs on an annual budget of about $200,000 to $300,000.

"Santa Monica BayKeepers has been incredibly effective in pursuing dozens of important cases that have helped turn around the pollution of the Santa Monica Bay," says Steve Beckman, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"They are the ones literally out there on the water with eyes and ears providing the evidence for some kind of spill or trash that can be prosecuted in court."

Recent actions against Caltrans, the state highway regulatory body, for illegal amounts of urban runoff, and Los Angeles County for broken sewage pipes "have been some of the biggest environmental successes ever in southern California," says Mr. Beckman.

Nationally, the Water Keeper Alliance also brings media attention to crisis situations - attention that can trigger political reform. Two years ago the Neuse River in North Carolina experienced a massive fish kill. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the dieoff was triggered by an infestation of flesh-eating bacteria known as pfiesteria and exacerbated by water pollution.

With the help of the Keepers, the dieoff made global headlines and helped prompt the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce to direct $365,000 to North Carolina to assist in its response.

"As a result of all of this attention, this situation has become a front-rank priority of the state governor, the General Assembly, and other organizations," says Rick Dove, a retired marine colonel and commercial fisherman.

"There is every reason to believe this situation will be turned around," says Mr. Dove.

But such turnarounds do not come without massive, round-the-clock effort.

Because of a 24-hour tip line, current Santa Monica BayKeeper Fleischli says he is frequently called into action between midnight and 5 a.m. When he is not answering hot-line tips, he may be taking local school kids on his daily run.

A typical tour might include a check of a kelp bed off the Palos Verde peninsula, which Baykeeper divers have been cultivating to restore fish habitat. Beyond that, a seaside golf course is being monitored for collapse of bank sediments that are damaging bottom organisms. BayKeepers are also watching a Superfund site of DDT discharges and a major dredging operation of metallic sediments.

Without the BayKeepers there might be no hard evidence for the regulatory agencies to use to confront the polluters, says Fleischli.

"This way, we keep them all honest because they know we are here, that we know the law as well as anyone, and that if they are not in compliance, we will be there," he says.

Keeping polluters honest doesn't necessarily have to mean dragging them into court.

"We don't have a long list of lawsuits to point to for our success," says Sally Bethea, director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Georgia.

Last year that organization won a $1 billion consent decree that forces the city of Atlanta to tackle the long-term pollution of nearby rivers and tributaries. "Just the threat of a suit is enough to get some polluters to clean up their act," says Ms. Bethea.

Keepers are about "empowering communities to solve their own problems and better the environments in which they lie," says Keeper executive director Kevin Madonna.

"They don't just represent fisherman, or environmentalists, or recreational users. They represent everyone who is interested in bodies of clean water."

"When I was a small boy, I used to stand on the Newport Pier hauling in Big Bonita fishes, walk along the beach with all kinds of seaweed and shells," says Gary Brown, who last month took on the mantle of CoastKeeper for Orange County.

"Now all that is gone and is replaced with a situation that when it rains, enough Styrofoam, tires, shoes, basketballs, and garbage shoots out of our storm discharge to make it appear you could walk entirely across without touching water."

With environmental degradation rampant in all areas of the country, Keepers say their time has not only come, it has come with a vengeance.

International Keeper programs are currently forming in Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, the Philippines, and Belize.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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