David Zwick, an early disciple in the corps of citizen activists who were popularly known as “Nader’s Raiders” and a founder and president of the environmental advocacy organization Clean Water Action, died Feb. 5 at his home in Minneapolis. He was 75.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Patrick Davis, press officer for the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
“If you drink water today, you are feeling the effects of David Zwick,” said consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who 50 years ago lured Mr. Zwick from Harvard Law School to his burgeoning, whistleblowing band of watchdog-critics of government and industry.
After Nader spoke to students at the law school in 1968, Mr. Zwick sought him out and asked how he could join up. “You haven’t even graduated,” a skeptical Nader recalled saying, but Mr. Zwick persisted.
By the next summer, he was leading a Nader task force on contaminated drinking water and recreational water, and he became principal author of a 1971 Nader-sponsored book, “Water Wasteland,” which focused on the failings of the Federal Water Quality Office to curb filthy waterways across the country.
Newsweek called the book “the first systematic attempt to wrap up all available information about water pollution,” and a Kirkus Review critic admiringly praised the volume as “another constructive, competent, brackish stinkbomb from the Nader camp.”
“Water Wasteland” was credited with having helped spur passage of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
Clean Water Action, which Mr. Zwick founded in 1972, was a grass-roots amalgam made up mostly of ordinary citizens joining forces to lobby for protection and improvement of water quality at the local, state and federal level. He was its first president and remained a leader in its hierarchy until 2008, taking periodic leaves of absence for other tasks, such as organizing community action groups.
In 46 years, Clean Water Action has grown into a Washington-based national organization with offices in a dozen states, 250 employees and an annual budget of $20 million.
David Reynolds Zwick was born May 1, 1942, in Rochester, N.Y. As a young man, he led a rock-and-roll band and played college football at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., where he graduated in 1963.
For four years, he was an officer in the Coast Guard, including stints in Vietnam where he commanded an 82-foot riverboat in the Mekong Delta. “He went to Vietnam a patriot, and he came back an antiwar protester,” said his former wife, Wendy Weingarten Zwick.
Disillusioned, he spent one of his “R&R” leaves writing a report for his superior officers saying the war was not winnable. It was disregarded.
On the GI bill, he went to Harvard, where he enrolled in the law school as well as the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Within a year, he was a fledgling Nader’s Raider, assigned to “water because he was in the Coast Guard,” Nader quipped.
He missed classes at Harvard but still managed to pass the exams, and he made the Harvard Law Review.
“Zwick is a phantom on campus,” the Harvard Law Record wrote of him in 1972. “He is constantly commuting between HLS, his Kennedy School classes and his office in Washington.” In 1973, he graduated from the law school and received a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School.
One of his early assignments at the Nader organization was to help write a paperback book, “Who Runs Congress?: The President, Big Business or You?” which became a bestseller but drew tepid reviews.
He organized Clean Water Action the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors and house-to-house canvassing, which three decades later remains a fundamental tactic of the organization, said Clean Water’s president, Bob Wendelgass. The staff includes environmental lawyers, professional pollsters and political advisers. Canvassers still solicit letters to political officeholders. Just to be sure, they come back later to pick up the letters and put them in the mail.
In 2005, Mr. Zwick moved to Minneapolis after 35 years in Washington. Survivors include three children, Winnie Zwick of Brooklyn, Ruth Zwick of Minneapolis and Jack Zwick of Minneapolis.
For recreation, the family went on camping trips. One of their favorite spots was the Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, on the southern shore of Lake Superior. It is the largest body of fresh water in North America.