Earth Week Heroes: Potomac Riverkeeper Celebrates 20th Anniversary

Dean in the Sea Dog’s state of the art water quality testing lab

In all of the hubbub surrounding the coronavirus health crisis, one non-profit’s anniversary milestone has quietly gone uncelebrated. Environmentalists remark on the reduced CO2, improved air quality, and animal liberation from our quarantine… but how about a shoutout for those who have been fighting to keep our waterways clean for decades? Happy 20th Anniversary to the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and defending the Potomac’s clean water in rivers and streams.

“When you first start being a Riverkeeper, people don’t understand what you do. You get dismissed quickly,” said Dean Naujoks, who took over as Riverkeeper for the Potomac in 2015. “But enforcing environmental laws has never been more important.”

With over 20 years of environmental non-profit experience, Naujoks is a hero in the Riverkeeper world, literally winning the River Network’s 2019 National River Heroes Award.  He spends his days aboard the Riverkeeper Network’s state of the art 42′ water testing laboratory vessel, the Sea Dog, protecting and defending the Potomac through watershed clean-ups, surveilling pollution/sewage discharge, and conducting water quality monitoring tests.

A lot has changed since the Network started 20 years ago, Naujoks admits. “Bad actors often [want to] make minor concessions, like band-aid approaches, to fixing serious pollution problems that have been on-going, often for years. And while we always have to educate people about our work to enforce environmental laws, over time we have started gaining respect.”  He says persistence and lawsuits against a few polluters helped those bad actors to “quickly figure out we never go away until they fix the pollution problem we have concerns about.”

The Sea Dog research vessel

And Naujoks isn’t alone in his work. Colleagues Mark Frondorf and Brent Wells manage the Network’s Shenandoah and Upper Potomac area respectively. Between the trio, their work establishes an important precedent for other states and other organizations to follow.

“Our organization’s greatest concerns relate to attempts to… roll back environmental protects in favor of special business interests,” said Naujoks.  “This has taken the form of repealing the Clean Water Rule, attempted budget cuts to EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, watering down EPA oversight over states and weakening enforcement. While many organizations have had to change their tactics considerably, our work on Clean Water Act enforcement as well as our local and regional grassroots citizen engagement and education on critical clean water issues has never been more important.”

While the Network’s anniversary, planned to be fêted during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, passed quietly, Naujoks and his colleagues are still celebrating 20 years… and continued efforts.  Data show marked improvements over the decades, but Naujoks says certain pollution — like urban stormwater pollution and stormwater from agricultural runoff is the fastest-growing source of pollution to the entire Chesapeake Bay.

“We are making progress on point sources, but failing on non-point sources,” says Naujoks.  “We have a rapidly growing population, major rollbacks and attacks on our clean water laws…  Investments in waste water and water treatment have been declining for years at a time we need to double down on our commitment toward clean water if we are to ensure safe, clean drinking water for future generations.”

And even in these times, you can help! The Network is expecting to offer on-line training modules and start building up potential volunteers for the summer when, fingers-crossed, we’ll be able to be back out, together, and enjoying our region’s wonderful waterways.

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