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Putting Some Skin in the Game

Becoming a Riverkeeper was my way of helping change ­people’s lives

February 1, 2003, was the day I first learned about Riverkeepers. I remember it so clearly because it was the same date the Space Shuttle Columbia burned up in the earth’s atmosphere over Texas.
    That was a sad day for the space program, but my life took a fortuitous turn. I was a mid-life law student taking a Ferris Bueller-type day away from my studies to attend a Tributary Strategies Team meeting at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis. A guy swept into the room, and it seemed like all the oxygen suddenly went in his direction.
     I later learned it was Fred Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper, in all his charismatic Irish glory. People whispered to me, that was “the Riverkeeper.”
    What’s that? I asked. Somebody handed me the book The Riverkeepers, by Bobby Kennedy and John Cronin. It was a page-turner that changed my life.
    A lifelong Patuxent resident and community activist, I was stunned and excited to learn about how activists on the Hudson River had formed a citizens movement to fight polluters, vested interests and government foot-dragging and how this same movement totally changed the game for watershed protection. That book was a catalyst that made me almost feverish about becoming a guardian for my home river. This was something I just had to be a part of.
    Thirteen years later, I’m just as psyched as ever about being a Riverkeeper and protecting the Patuxent River, which flows through seven Maryland counties into Chesapeake Bay.
    Prior to my work as a Riverkeeper (or a law student), I spent 25 years in radio and television. I grew tired of recycling the same themes in my work. I was exhausted by the endless grind of airline travel.
     One day in the White House pressroom, I watched a presidential staffer stick the printed text of the president’s next speech on a bulletin board. It occurred to me that we were about to film a press conference where the full text had already been written and posted. Yet we had to hang around and get pictures of it. What was newsworthy about that? It felt canned, contrived, orchestrated and pointless. It did not feel like breaking news to me. It felt like wasting time.
    The staged futility overwhelmed me. I realized that the world and its genuine problems were just passing us by while we waited for some thing or someone else to do something. Besides, after 25 years in that industry, I don’t recall a single occasion when anybody ever mentioned that we were there to inform and empower the public.
    It was then that I decided to no longer be a spectator in the world of public policy. I wanted skin in the game.
    What better place to do that than on the front lines of protecting water and public health? Becoming a Riverkeeper was my way of helping change people’s lives by protecting the present and future of their water supply.
    This is work I take seriously. I try to anchor my efforts in producing tangible results: enforcing permits, extracting reparations, brokering fines and penalties. I try to get measurable pollution reductions while championing the greatest underdogs in my watershed. To me the beauty, the poetry and the best stories these rivers have to tell are in the hearts and souls of its most strident stewards and those suffering the deepest injustices.
    There is plenty of citizen courage on the Patuxent River. She has endless stories to share.
    Being a Riverkeeper is also humanitarian work in that we help people, while grounded in nature and stewardship. Since taking this job, I have looked forward to every single day at work. Even the bad days are far more rewarding than my old career.  
     It is the hardest work I have done, but also work that I am most passionate about. It consistently challenges me to up my own game. I am a proud member of a community of Marylanders that fights an uphill (and sometimes unpopular) battle for the waterways that connect us to each other.


Upcoming with the Patuxent Riverkeeper

Great American Backyard Campout: June 25-26
First-time campers and families connect with nature at this community overnight event. Enjoy camping, nature hikes, animal programs, star gazing and s’mores. Experienced paddlers needed to share skills. 10am-10am, Patuxent River Park, Upper Marlboro, $13 w/discounts, rsvp: www.mncppcapps.org.

Patuxent River Roughnecks: Saturday July 16
Help whip the Indian Creek campsite into shape by clearing brush, putting up signage, repairing the fire ring & picnic benches and clearing a trail to the water. Then enjoy a picnic and paddle. 9am-1pm, Indian Creek NRMA, Benedict, rsvp: Sonia@PaxRiverkeeper.org.


Fred Tutman is the Patuxent Riverkeeper, with offices in Nottingham, Maryland: www.PaxRiverkeeper.org.