Riverkeeper: on patrol for polluters

For kids: This group does its part to protect New York’s Hudson River.

Joan Gaylord
‘Riverkeeper’ is the boat that captain John Lipscomb uses to patrol the waterway.

In eastern New York State, members of a small organization known as Riverkeeper work hard to protect the very big Hudson River from polluters.

The Hudson River begins in the Adirondack Mountains and flows about 300 miles south to New York City, ending at the Atlantic Ocean. Although the Hudson is mighty, it still needs people to protect it from harm.

John Lipscomb is one of those people. He is the boat captain for Riverkeeper. Almost every day, Mr. Lipscomb starts the engine of Riverkeeper’s white, wooden boat. Guiding it out of the marina, he heads up the Hudson. From March to December, he travels more than 6,900 miles up and down the river to look for polluters.

As Mr. Lipscomb guides the boat, he makes note of the animals and birds that he sees. Using binoculars, he scans the shoreline, looking for any changes since the last time he was in that area.

He inspects drainage pipes to see what people are pouring into the Hudson. When other boats pass by, he gives a friendly wave, but he also sniffs, checking for the smell of gasoline or oil that could be leaking from the boat and polluting the river.

Although it is usually called a river, nearly half of the Hudson is really an estuary. An estuary is where the mouth of a large river meets the sea and salty ocean waters mingle with the river’s freshwater as tides surge in and flow out.

When native Americans lived in this area in the 1600s, the Mahican tribe saw how the ocean tides affected the water. They called the Hudson the Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk, which means “the river that flows two ways.”

Estuaries such as the Hudson serve as important breeding grounds for fish and birds. Shad, blue crab, and herring all swim from the Atlantic Ocean into the Hudson to lay their eggs.

Birds make nests along the shore. Mr. Lipscomb says that when he is working, he thinks of the Hudson as a nursery for baby animals.

In the spring, he watches young bald eagles called “eaglets” learn to fly. Sometimes they circle his boat and watch him work. Mr. Lipscomb can quickly tell that they are babies because their heads are gray rather than white like those of adult bald eagles.

Animals, though, are not the only ones who use the Hudson. People, businesses, and towns also use the water, but they don’t always take care of it.

In the mid-1960s, the Hudson River was a very dirty place. When it rained, garbage dumped along the shores seeped into the water. A railroad company got rid of its old oil by pouring it into the Hudson. And a factory dumped in so much leftover paint that it made the water change colors.

People who enjoyed the Hudson River grew concerned. The water was becoming so polluted that it wasn’t safe for them to swim or boat. The water also wasn’t safe for fish, birds, and other animals. So a group of these people got together and decided to try and change what was happening to the river they loved.

They made an important discovery when they learned of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and the Refuse Act of 1899. These laws said that it was illegal to pollute America’s waterways. The laws also said that anyone who reported a polluter could collect a bounty, or reward.

Most of the laws that we now have to protect our environment didn’t exist in the 1960s. Although these 19th-century ones did, they seemed to have been forgotten.

The group gathered proof that companies and towns were polluting the water, and they reported this to the government. After working for two years, they helped shut down the pipe where oil poured into the river. They collected a $2,000 bounty and were the first people to receive money under the Rivers and Harbors Act.

The group used the bounty to help identify more polluters. By 1983, they had earned enough reward money to buy a boat and hire someone as a full-time “riverkeeper.”

The job of riverkeeper is a very old one. Some of the first riverkeepers worked in England during the 1600s. They were hired by landowners to keep rivers and streams safe for fishing.

Twenty-five people work for Riverkeeper, including the boat captain, scientists, and lawyers. The boat captain, of course, patrols the Hudson. The scientists use their knowledge to prove how some people’s activities harm the water. And the lawyers use the information given to them by the boat captain and scientists to ask the polluters to stop. If they don’t stop, the lawyers take them to court.

There is also a president of the organization, Alex Matthiessen. Mr. Matthiessen believes that everyone can help take responsibility for keeping our streams and rivers clean, even kids.

The people at Riverkeeper work very hard, but they can’t do everything. They depend on other people who care about the Hudson to help them.

One of Mr. Matthiessen’s favorite experiences was when Riverkeeper received money from a third-grader and her friends to help keep the boat running. At her birthday party, the girl told her friends that she didn’t want presents. Instead, she asked everyone to give money to help take care of the Hudson River.

“Kids understand,” Mr. Matthiessen said. “The rivers and oceans belong to them, to all of us. Children have a right to clean water and air.”

To stop polluters, Riverkeeper continues to rely on those old laws that protect the water. Now, though, our country has many more and better environmental laws. Mr. Matthiessen thinks of the laws as rules that everyone must follow.

“Kids have rules,” Mr. Matthiessen said. “Adults and corporations do, too.”

Mr. Matthiessen said that stopping a large corporation from polluting the Hudson sometimes seems like a huge job for a small group like Riverkeeper. But that doesn’t discourage him.

“As long as you have clear evidence, you win every time,” he said. “Truth is powerful.”

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