Ecocentric blog kicks off the latest installment of Our Heroes with “Know Your Waterkeeper,” a short series of weekly interviews with a number of Waterkeepers from around the country. Our first interview is with Waterkeeper Alliance Executive Director Marc Yaggi.
Before joining Waterkeeper Alliance, Marc received a JD from Pace University School of Law and an LLM in Environmental Law. He then served as a staff attorney with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC and was a senior attorney and watershed program director for Riverkeeper, Inc.
After working within the Waterkeeper movement for more than a decade, Marc has been instrumental in expanding the Alliance’s international reach, by aiding the implementation of new Waterkeeper programs around the world. In addition, he leads Waterkeeper Alliance’s media strategy and outreach efforts on public awareness of the issues central to the organization’s mission. Marc shares in GRACE’s enthusiasm about helping people understand how food, water and energy are connected and impact each other. He has been able to turn his childhood love of water into a long-standing career and now makes water protection a main focus of his life.
What water body inspired you to embrace water protection, and why?
Growing up, I swam nearly every day in various creeks, streams, lakes and other parts of the Susquehanna River watershed. Throughout my childhood, I took pleasure in swimming in every waterway we found on our travels. I took it for granted that you could go outside and jump in your local waterway and have a swim without fear of getting sick. The idea that everyone should have clean water for swimming or drinking or fishing has always been part of my ethos.
How did you come to work for Waterkeeper?
I became involved in the Waterkeeper movement when I was in law school. In the mid-1990s, I went to Pace Law School and joined the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic. The Clinic takes 10 students every semester and gives them the opportunity to work on legal cases, under the supervision of Professors Karl Coplan and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The primary client for the clinic is Hudson Riverkeeper. The Clinic was hands-down the most exciting and rewarding part of law school. I found my calling representing Hudson Riverkeeper and admired the whole concept of the Waterkeeper model. I feel so fortunate to have been trained and inspired by Karl and Bobby, along with many of our founding Waterkeepers, like John Cronin, Terry Backer, Andy Willner, Sally Bethea, Joe Payne, Rick Dove and more.
Once I graduated from law school and after working two years at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC, I was hired by Hudson Riverkeeper to work on protecting New York City's drinking water supply watershed. I served in that role for nearly seven years, and then moved from Riverkeeper to take on a new role at Waterkeeper Alliance as Director of Waterkeeper Support. I have now been at Waterkeeper Alliance for eight years and have been executive director for the past two and half years.
What are the biggest threats to water quality that Waterkeepers around the US and the world are confronting?
That is a difficult question to answer, as there are so many threats facing our waterways and often the biggest threats to one waterway are different from another depending on where the waterways are located. Invariably, many of the threats revolve around energy and water or food and water.
Our deadly addiction to fossil fuels is wreaking havoc on our waterways and communities. And this addiction, coupled with corporate greed and corrupt government agencies that have abdicated their duty to regulate industry and protect us, has led to situations like the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster. From communities that are dealing with waterways that are contaminated with toxic chemicals from coal ash waste seeping into their waters to communities that are having drinking water supplies contaminated by fracking, our reliance on dirty energy sources is having a huge impact on water quality and quantity.
Similarly, our food system has transformed from family farms to large, industrial factory farms. These industry behemoths use their financial muscle to buy off politicians and they skirt our public health and environmental protections, sending massive quantities of hog, poultry, and cattle waste into our waters. Given all of the above, perhaps the biggest threat to water quality, in this country at least, is the decline of democracy.
What are the major challenges that you’re working on as the executive director at Waterkeeper?
The biggest challenges are always making sure that we're providing the best support that we can to the local advocates on the ground in 209 communities in 23 countries on six continents; that our staff has the tools and support to do the best work that they can; and always focusing on the big picture and making sure you make the right decisions to reach your goals. We have an immensely talented and hardworking staff at Waterkeeper Alliance and more than 200 passionate, dedicated advocates on waterways across the globe. We constantly are working to reach our vision for swimmable, drinkable, fishable waterways worldwide.
How can we better manage our water resources to avoid a freshwater crisis?
Issues regarding water, food, and energy are intertwined. We have to do a better job of conserving our water resources. There are a multitude of conservation measures we should adopt to save money and water. We need to transition to a new energy economy as quickly as possible because this continued reliance on dirty fossil fuels is jeopardizing life as we know it on our planet. And we need to force industrial agriculture to stop using our waterways as toilets for their operations and stop cutting corners on environmental protections and jeopardizing our public health. These issues need to stay at the forefront; they impact our fisheries, our families and our communities. It is important that people support grassroots advocacy efforts and vote for officials who are going to bring us clean energy and help us to break the grip of Big Oil, Big Coal, and other industries that have a stranglehold on our democracy. It is the most important war we will ever fight.
We can't go without water for more than a week. It makes up 60 percent of our bodies, 70 percent of our brains and 80 percent of our blood. But we are mismanaging both the quality and the quantity of the water that is on this planet and it is the only water we have.