Our Heroes: Pete Nichols of Waterkeeper Alliance

The second installment of Our Heroes: “Know Your Waterkeeper,” a short series of weekly interviews with Waterkeepers from around the country, is with Waterkeeper Alliance National Director Pete Nichols.

With a background in conservation biology, Pete has worked in conservation in northern California for over fifteen years. Upon arriving in California in 1992, he was deeply involved in the struggle to protect the last remnants of the region’s ancient redwood forests. He was also the Project and Science Coordinator for the California Wildlands Project, a habitat-based conservation planning project of the California Wilderness Coalition.

Pete was co-founder of Humboldt Baykeeper in 2004, and was Baykeeper and Executive Director from its inception until seven years later, when he became Western Regional Director, then National Director, of Waterkeeper Alliance. In recent years, Nichols has been increasingly involved in national and international Waterkeeper efforts. He serves on the group’s Board of Directors and in 2011 led a mission to help establish a Waterkeeper chapter in Iraq.

In addition to serving on the Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors, Pete is also the Secretary of the Board of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, and the President of the Northcoast Environmental Center, a bioregional conservation organization for northwest California and southern Oregon. Originally inspired by the lakes and coastal waters of his childhood home in Maine, Pete has always been an advocate for the environment. Like those of us at GRACE, he shares a love for all things water.

How do you get people motivated to protect water?

Very simple — I describe to them what Waterkeepers do. I have, on many occasions, spent time telling the story of the genesis of the movement, the work of Waterkeepers, and the scope of the movement, which is incredibly motivational. People love an underdog story and that is the story of every Waterkeeper; a small, community-based, advocate standing up to — nose to nose with — those who threaten their waterway and community. It speaks for itself.

How are keepers around the world dealing with the threats their water bodies face?

Waterkeepers do what it takes to protect their waterways and communities from the impacts of pollution, and do whatever it takes to hold polluters accountable for their actions. Waterkeepers are advocates, educators and communicators. They empower their communities to develop a sense of ownership — a sense of place — to motivate community members to protect their waterways. Every individual has a right to access to swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters and has a duty to protect those rights for future generations. Waterkeepers are there to amplify the voice of their community and be the voice of their waterway.

How has your role changed throughout your time at Waterkeeper?

I founded and served as the Humboldt Baykeeper for seven years. During that time, I also served as the Pacific Region representative to the Board of Directors of Waterkeeper Alliance. In 2011, I left Humboldt Baykeeper to join the staff of Waterkeeper Alliance as the Western Regional Director and have since become the National Director.  

What are the major challenges that you’re working on in your capacity as National Director?

The major challenge for me at Waterkeeper is realizing the significant need for Waterkeepers around the world due to threats to our global water resources and building the movement in an efficient way to both meet this need and simultaneously provide the support to the movement. We believe if we are to adequately address the global water crisis, both from a quality and quantity perspective, we will need to do so in the next 5-10 years. We would like to build the movement in such a way where we have Waterkeepers across the globe on every major waterway.  

When was the first time you thought to yourself, “I need to protect this body of water,” and which one was it?

It was in 2003. For many years, I was an environmental activist, both during college and afterward. The advocacy work I was doing at the time was protecting the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, specifically in my case, the ancient redwoods of northern California. In addition to my ‘on the ground’ activist work, I also worked as a conservation biologist to protect wildlife corridors, through habitat-based computer modeling for large carnivores, whose habitat was being fragmented through industrial forestry practices. The reason I preface my response with this background is that many of the impacts we were noticing from industrial forestry were to the water resources through sedimentation, a decline in native fisheries and the introduction of toxins into our rivers, bays and estuaries.  

In 2003, an outside corporation came to the Humboldt Bay watershed and proposed to bring a liquefied natural gas import terminal to our bay. Not only was this proposed terminal bad for the local economy and dangerous from a safety perspective, but also would have impacts to the bay and the ocean from toxic spills, illegal discharges and our local fisheries. We knew that we had to protect the Bay, coast and ocean from this massive LNG plant and we organized local citizens to fight back in the name of clean water and healthy communities. As we worked together to educate our community about the issue and the Bay, and got 1500 people to show up to a city council meeting to defeat the proposal, we realized there needed to be a dedicated group to speak for the Bay, watershed and coast. Shortly thereafter, Humboldt Baykeeper was born.

Describe Humboldt Bay and how it’s used.

Located on California's rugged North Coast, roughly 250 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Humboldt Bay is California's second largest natural estuary. Humboldt Bay's four major watersheds drain approximately 250 square miles. The Humboldt Bay watershed encompasses the ancient Headwaters Forest and privately-owned industrial timberlands, agricultural lands mostly used for raising dairy and beef cattle, salmon-bearing streams, huge expanses of tidal mudflats and a variety of wetlands, including the only substantial area of salt marsh between San Francisco Bay and Coos Bay, Oregon.

Along the Bay's wind-swept coast lies an extraordinary dune ecosystem. Sand dunes are formed from sediments washed away from the erosive soils of the Franciscan Assemblage by plentiful and intense rainstorms. These sediments are carried to the ocean by the many rivers of the area, and are deposited near river mouths. Two of these rivers, the Mad and the Eel, feed sediments into the dunes of the Humboldt Bay region via longshore transport, summer ocean swells and predominant northwesterly winds. In the winter, large storm waves continue the dune-building cycle by scouring the beach and washing sediments back out to sea. The net effect is the continual building and movement of dunes. Public lands around the Bay protect and enhance the ecosystem and its wild inhabitants. The Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge protects wetlands, dunes, mudflats, eelgrass beds and other vital habitats for migratory birds, including the Black Brant. The Refuge also includes the Lanphere Dunes, one of the most pristine remaining dune ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. Another publicly-owned jewel is the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. The Arcata Marsh is an example of the community's involvement in environmental politics, innovative uses of land and applications of appropriate technology in a small urban community. The marsh has multiple uses, including recreation, wildlife habitat, education and wastewater treatment.

Humboldt Bay is home to a vibrant fishing fleet, supporting healthy salmon and Dungeness crab fisheries. The Bay is one of the significant oyster mariculture sites in the Pacific Northwest, producing more than 80 percent of all the oysters consumed in California. The Bay is also host to may recreational activities such as rowing, sailing and bird watching.