Our Heroes: Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper

This week’s installment of Know Your Waterkeeper is with Riverkeeper President and Hudson Riverkeeper Paul Gallay.

Paul grew up fishing in Kensico Reservoir, part of the New York City drinking water system. He studied law and went into private practice, but in 1987, he left that to work for the New York State Attorney General. Paul embarked on a path that led to more than a decade at New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, where he helped close Fresh Kills landfill, raise water quality standards at New York City wastewater treatment plants and bring hundreds of corporate and government polluters to justice. He then spent a decade working in the land conservation movement in both New York and Maine before joining Riverkeeper. Paul is a graduate of Williams College and Columbia Law School and has held a number of teaching positions, including a Visiting Professorship in Environmental Studies at Williams College.

Now, as President of Riverkeeper, Paul fights for a cleaner Hudson River and for the safety of the drinking water for over nine million New Yorkers, which makes all of us at GRACE who drink water, happy.

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

I grew up fishing in the Kensico Reservoir, from which eight million New Yorkers draw their drinking water. From the first time I dropped a line into the Kensico to the present day I’ve never stopped thinking about the need to protect it.

Describe the Hudson River and how it’s used.

Riverkeeper protects the Hudson River and its tributaries – a watershed that encompasses over five thousand square miles. We’re also the leading watchdog for the New York City drinking water reservoir system and its 2,000 square-mile watershed. These two diverse systems are home to hundreds of species of fish and tens of thousands of fishermen, boaters and swimmers, while facing growing threats from countless cities and towns discharging municipal and industrial effluents that put our health and environment at risk.

What are the biggest threats to the Hudson River?

Crumbling infrastructure is the 800-pound gorilla, when it comes to water quality in New York. The State estimates a staggering $36 billion will be needed over the next 20 years to address wastewater treatment needs. Statewide, more than 30 percent of New York’s water treatment facilities are over 60 years old, which is twenty or even thirty years beyond their replacement dates. Riverkeeper has taken thousands of water quality samples since 2006 and our data reveals that sewage contamination makes our waters unsafe for swimming about a quarter of the time – even more after it rains.

Then there’s Indian Point, an aging nuke plant only 35 miles from midtown Manhattan, with no evacuation plan and over 1,500 tons of spent fuel warehoused in leaking, over-full storage pools. And, we can’t forget the risk that New York will join the parade of states that allows fracking. We’ve held off fracking for five years, but its unprecedented threats to water, air, public health and community character are anything but over.

What makes this all so much harder is that our Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is at its weakest point in decades. Between 2008 and 2010 alone, DEC lost 849 of its scientists, engineers and enforcement officials – one-quarter of its total workforce. The impacts of these deep and disproportionate cuts are reflected by the shocking 45 percent decline in enforcement actions along portions of the Hudson.

So, it seems like Riverkeeper has never had a bigger mission, when it comes to policing clean water laws that the government can’t – or won’t – enforce.

How do you motivate people to protect the Hudson River?

We put them to work! Hundreds of dedicated partners now sample local tributaries, helping us to double the scope of our water-testing program. Fourteen hundred volunteers turned out for our Riverkeeper Sweep cleanup day in May 2013. Riverkeeper “Ambassadors” recruited nearly 200 new members this summer and we’re in the process of assembling a group of ten student ambassadors to engage in similar recruitment on college campuses in New York City and the Hudson Valley. Most recently, over a thousand dedicated activists submitted comments demanding that New York State exercise its power to deny the Indian Point nuclear power station any further operating extensions.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve experienced during your time as a Riverkeeper?

Well, I guess this is more unexpected than it is odd, but before I became a Keeper I never thought I’d get a tattoo, let alone one that I’d be so proud of, each and every damned time I saw it! [See a photo of Paul sporting his Waterkeeper tattoo above.]