“They tell us in school that we’re mostly water,” said Merrifield, whose retirement is effective on New Year’s Eve. “Well, if you live in the Washington area, and you drink from it, you are mostly Potomac River.”
Nearly 500 million gallons are taken from the river basin every day to supply water to nearly 6 million residents. The water quality has improved since Congress called the Potomac a “national disgrace” in the 1960s, but the river is still dirty.
On his patrol, Merrifield, of Rockville, went under the Arlington Memorial Bridge, not far from where biologists discovered male bass with female sex organs, raising concern that toxic pollution rearranged their hormones. He pointed to a huge sewer drain near Georgetown, where millions of gallons of stormwater runoff and raw human waste overflow into the river each year.
This was what pushed him into riverkeeping a decade ago.
“We stop water pollution,” he said. “If it’s illegal pollution, we go after it as fast as we can to tell them you have to stop. We use all legal means necessary. We won’t back down.”
A few months ago, when Merrifield announced his plan to retire, his organization quickly posted a tweet: “Do you have what it takes to be a riverkeeper?” It was no small question. The answer? You probably do not.
Riverkeepers are part of the worldwide Waterkeeper Alliance that started in 1966 when commercial and recreational fishermen united to fight industrial pollution in New York’s Hudson River and to protect their way of life.
After several court victories, the nonprofit Hudson River Fishermen’s Association hired its first full-time Hudson riverkeeper to patrol the river. Copycat river, bay, beach and ocean keepers sprang up worldwide, until the alliance was founded in 1999 to unite and support them, establishing waterkeeper bylaws and codes of conduct.
Merrifield is one of about 200 waterkeepers worldwide; the Chesapeake Bay watershed has about 20.
“I make a lot of enemies,” said Fred Tutman, the Patuxent riverkeeper. “The work by its very nature is adversarial. Usually your enemies are polluters, sometimes politicians.” If you don’t get people mad at you, he said, “you shouldn’t be a riverkeeper.”
“You’ve got to be ready to mix it up,” said Paul Gallay, head of the national riverkeeper organization, based in New York. “You have to have a vessel, develop a grass-roots constituency, respond to complaints, advocate for and enforce environmental laws, including legal enforcement, if necessary.”
Across the world, nonprofit riverkeeper organizations are supported by 40,000 activists, members and volunteers, said Gallay, who is also the Hudson riverkeeper. In the United States, keepers use the federal Clean Water Act, which gives citizens the right to sue municipalities, as a weapon against pollution.