The Origins of Riverkeeper
In March 1966, a small group of recreational and commercial fishermen, concerned citizens and scientists met at a Crotonville American Legion Hall intending to reverse the decline of the Hudson River by reclaiming it from polluters. With them was Robert H. Boyle, an angler and senior writer at Sports Illustrated, who was outraged by the reckless abuse endured by the river.
At the group’s initial meeting, Boyle announced that he had stumbled across two forgotten laws: The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1888 and The Refuse Act of 1899. These laws forbade pollution of navigable waters in the U.S., imposed fines for polluters, and provided a bounty reward for whoever reported the violation. After listening to Boyle speak, the blue-collar audience agreed to organize as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, and dedicate themselves to tracking down the river’s polluters and bringing them to justice.
Right from the start, the grassroots actions taken by the fishermen went against convention. While many organizations sought environmental justice through protests and civil disobedience, the HRFA sought to protect the Hudson through advocacy and law enforcement. At the group’s core was a belief that everyday people should be able to defend our public resources from maltreatment and damage. The Fishermen’s actions to protect the communal watershed quality showed that ordinary citizens had legal standing in protecting our natural resources.
The Fishermen were as good as their word. Their first target was Penn Central Railroad, which for years released petroleum products into the Croton River, a Hudson tributary. HRFA informed the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Attorney, calling on enforcement of The Refuse Act, but were ignored. So the HRFA took the law into their own hands: they sued Penn Central, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Secretary of the Army. This caught the attention of the U.S. Attorney's office, which then joined the HRFA in its suit against Penn Central. The HRFA prevailed, and the fine provided the first bounty afforded to a private organization from a polluter.
Emboldened, the HRFA distributed thousands of copies of “Bag a Polluter” postcards for citizen whistleblowers to fill in and to mail back to the organization. Soon, they were collecting even larger bounties against polluters such as Anaconda Wire and Copper, Standard Brands, Ciba-Geigy, American Cyanamid, and Westchester County. The Fishermen also joined with Scenic Hudson to stop Con Ed’s proposed hydroelectric plant on the face of Storm King Mountain. It was, in large part, the discovery of a striped bass spawning ground near the proposed site that ultimately prevented the building of the facility.
These victories provided new funding to expand HRFA influence along the Hudson. Meanwhile Boyle — inspired by the British tradition of posting ''riverkeepers'' on private trout and salmon streams — envisioned doing the same thing for the Hudson and called for someone who would be “on the river the length of the year, nailing polluters on the spot...giving a sense of time, place and purpose to people who live in or visit the valley.” Boyle found his first full-time Riverkeeper in John Cronin, a commercial fishermen and activist, in 1983 and the HRFA built the first Riverkeeper patrol boat that same year.
Soon after, acting on a tip from a New York State Trooper, Cronin learned that Exxon tankers were flushing out jet fuel residue and filling up with river water to take to an Exxon refinery. Cronin collected data and evidence. His proof was so thorough that Exxon had little choice but to settle, paying $1.5 million to New York State for a private river management fund and $500,000 to HRFA.
HRFA merged with its growing Riverkeeper program in 1986 to form one group to protect the river. Since then, Riverkeeper has brought hundreds of polluters to justice and forced them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars remediating the Hudson.
In 1997, Riverkeeper negotiated the $1.5 billion New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement on behalf of upstate communities, environmentalists, and New York City watershed consumers. It is regarded as an international model in stakeholder consensus negotiations and sustainable development.
In recent years, Riverkeeper has helped to get Endangered Species Act protection for Atlantic Sturgeon and new fishing regulations for herring. The organization also campaigned to ban fracking in New York State in 2014.
Riverkeeper began sampling the Hudson in 2006, and in 2008 started our full-estuary sampling project, in partnership with CUNY Queens College and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Today, this program aims to improve the water quality of the Hudson and its tributaries through increased water quality monitoring and public notification, consistent investment in wastewater and stormwater infrastructure and better water quality policies.
In 2018, nearly 50 organizations and 180 individuals partnered to collect 5,400 samples. The data Riverkeeper has gathered since establishing our estuary monitoring program have illuminated some of the river’s challenges. Riverkeeper has identified where wastewater infrastructure is failing and seen investments pay off in improved water quality, and defined critical baseline information about the presence of pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other trace contaminants.
In January 2017, Riverkeeper reached an agreement with New York State and Entergy for the shutdown of the two aging nuclear reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center. Riverkeeper fought this decades-long battle to close this aging and unreliable nuclear plant with laws that protect the fish. When the Indian Point closes in 2021, its cooling intakes will power down and this will save a billion river creatures from destruction each year. We continue to work to ensure that Indian Point’s closure and decommissioning are done right and community interests are addressed.
Today, Riverkeeper is renewing its commitment to “A Living River,” our priority is to give the Hudson its life back. Fish such as the Atlantic sturgeon, American shad and striped bass — three iconic Hudson River species — are among many that remain endangered or in decline. We cannot be content with protecting these dwindling populations.
One way Riverkeeper is working to restore life in the Hudson is by removing obsolete dams along the creeks and streams that nourish the river. These dams not only block fish from their historical spawning grounds, but trap sediments, nutrients and minerals vital to the food web. We have secured written agreements for the removal of several dams to allow passage of migratory fish, and we’re continuing to reach out to dam owners. And a new film, “Undamming the Hudson,” is helping to keep the issue alive.
On the Mohawk River, we are helping develop the state’s agenda in ways that protect fish. The DEC’s new Mohawk Basin Action Agenda will investigate ways to prevent invasive species from migrating from the Great Lakes, and support a migratory fish passage through the Erie Canal locks and dams, which segment the natural flow.
Riverkeeper is also thick in the battle against ill-conceived storm surge barriers that would choke off the river where the Hudson meets the ocean. Several options considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have catastrophic consequences for the river and New York Harbor. Specifically, storm surge barriers – giant ocean gates – would choke off tidal flow and the migration of fish – damaging the life of the Hudson River Estuary forever.
At Riverkeeper’s founding, the river was little more than an open sewer. Thanks to the massive reductions in pollution we’ve helped foster over the past half-century, our vision of a clean, safe and vibrant Hudson is finally within reach. Looking into the future: Riverkeeper will bring the same energy to our ecosystems work that we did to cutting pollution, closing Indian Point and protecting your drinking water, so that the mighty Hudson will brim with life, once again.
Dan Shapley is the Director of Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Program and a founding board member of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance.
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue of the Pilot Log. If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
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