2015 River Network River Heroes: Jennifer Pitt

In this week’s installment of Our Heroes, we talk with Jennifer Pitt of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Pitt is one of River Network’s 2015 River Heroes. The award celebrates those who protect rivers by recognizing their victories and honoring the leadership and inspiration they provide. Heroes are nominated and selected by peers and celebrated and awarded annually at the River Rally.

Pitt, who grew up along the Hudson River not far from New York City, and now lives in Colorado, manages EDF’s efforts on the Colorado River to protect and restore the Colorado River Delta and reform water policy throughout the basin. She works with water users throughout the river basin to develop programs to restore river habitats and, critically, to dedicate water to environmental resources like fish habitats. She is an expert on shared resource management between the US and Mexico of the Delta, and helped negotiate the bi-national water-sharing agreement that allowed for the 2014 Colorado River Delta pulse flow that gave the Delta a rejuvenating shot of water for the first time in five decades.

Read on to find out how Pitt became a hero.

How did you become a river champion?

I was raised in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, with a view of that majestic river from my house. In the 1970s, the Hudson was frighteningly polluted. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere near the water. Pete Seeger was sailing his Clearwater sloop up and down the river to rally communities to the cause of cleaning it up. He came to sing at my elementary school – My Rainbow Race, Old Father Hudson, The Water is Wide – and at the annual Clearwater Festival. I can remember sitting at Pete’s feet on the stage where he invited kids from the audience to join him. I also remember sitting in my parents’ living room playing his albums over and over on the belt-drive turntable, following the words printed on the album sleeve. That music was the soundtrack of my childhood.

I didn’t figure out that I wanted to work on rivers until much later, after going to school to study environmental science and policy. I suspect now that I wasn’t just listening to Pete Seeger’s tunes, but also internalizing the messages in his songs.

Tell us about the Colorado River – the body of water you protect. When did you first realize, “I need to protect this?”

I spent the late ‘90s in DC working first for a congressman and then for The National Park Service providing technical assistance to community groups organized around rivers. I learned a lot while I was there, but I ached for work with a closer connection to a real place. At the same time I was also determined to move back to Colorado, where I’d spent a few summers as a park ranger. When Environmental Defense Fund offered me the opportunity to work on protection and restoration of the Colorado River, I jumped at the chance.

I now have an amazing team of colleagues at Pronatura Noroeste, the Sonoran Institute and The Nature Conservancy working with me on restoration of the Colorado River Delta. The camaraderie has made it a joy to stay engaged all this time.

What are the biggest threats to the Colorado River (pollution, development, climate change impacts, etc.)?

The Colorado River’s big problem is an imbalance between water supply and demand. The Colorado River hasn’t flowed regularly to the sea in half a century, and in the past fifteen years the water in its reservoirs has dropped by half. The solutions are difficult because of the “Law of the River” – the legal framework first established in the 19th Century that favors diversions over water in the river. Climate change and population growth are both accelerating the problem. But I’m optimistic that the very factors that challenge us will open the doors to new solutions.

Large population centers faced with significant water shortages are likely to create the political will to change the legal framework – and to provide the funding – to ensure that more water stays in the reservoirs with voluntary, compensated demand management. The conservation community’s challenge is to figure out how demand management can support healthy river flows and sustain rural communities.

How do you get people motivated to protect the Colorado River?

The Colorado River is pretty majestic – lots of people already love the places that define it, like the headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Canyon. Our biggest challenge is to help people understand that their own behaviors, and those of their local, state and federal water managers acting on their behalf, have a direct impact on the health of Colorado River.

More than 36 million people use Colorado River water to take their showers, clean their cars and water their lawns, but we’re piping the water to them over long distances, most of them living pretty far from the water source: the river. Our challenge is to help these people see the connection between the water in their faucets and the Colorado River.

The deliberate release of a “pulse flow” into the Colorado River Delta in 2014 was planned to benefit that once-lush landscape that has been desiccated for years. But an ancillary benefit was the huge amount of publicity it generated, and the opportunity it provided to reach a lot of people with the story of the Colorado River’s problems, as well as solutions that are within reach.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve experienced during your time working with the Colorado River?

The Colorado River Delta straddles the US – Mexico border in Southern Arizona, and extends south through the Sonoran Desert to the Gulf of California. It’s a dry, sandy place that looks abandoned because the river has disappeared. If you want to get a good look at the river channel, you have to bushwhack through abandoned floodplains and fight your way past salt-cedar bushes that grow everywhere. So several days into the 2014 pulse flow, I was amazed to find myself in an inflatable kayak, paddling in the Colorado River channel down a bona fide river where you would have only found hot, dry sand a few days earlier. That was surreal. The birds were out in force – I recorded their cacophony at one point because it was so loud – and I saw beaver, several times! At the end of the day, as we approached our takeout under the bridge in San Luis Rio Colorado, we were greeted by hundreds of people out enjoying the river. Seeing all those kids playing in the water – in the river they had never seen before - that’s a sight I’ll never forget.