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Activists Work To Protect US Rivers - 2001-09-01

A network of citizen activists in the United States uses the law to protect the nation's rivers. They call themselves 'riverkeepers' and work to preserve the habitat, water quality and flow of America's waterways.

James Holland calls himself the eyes and ears of the Altamaha River. The 220 kilometer river he watches is relatively undisturbed by channels, dredging or major reservoirs. Its swamps and refuges are home to dozens of rare or endangered plants and animals including some found nowhere else on earth.

"The beauty of the old cypresses, just the old swamp," he said. "This has been here for 200 years just like it is right now, and one thing for sure we better start looking after it or it won't be here in another 200 years."

James Holland has spent a lifetime on the river as a crab fisherman, but blames the decline of fisheries, and the failure of his business, on poor water quality. Now as an advocate for the Altamaha, the 60 year old retired crabber responds to reports of erosion, loss of wetlands, and the illegal dumping of pollutants from agriculture and industry. "I view it as my job to end pollution where I see it, when I see it, said James Holland"

James Holland finds garbage stashed in tree trunks and pools of diesel fuel and abandoned trucks at logging operations near the river. A recent complaint on hog waste from a processing plant in the watershed led him to take a closer look. "In doing so I found the County making preparations for paving a road," he said. "They were widening it and making improvements. And, in doing so they destroyed wetlands. They didn't have enough erosion control to prevent erosion. I went further on from the spray field and from the area where I could view the spray field, the guy up there was draining wetlands. I found a ditch where he was draining wetlands. I also found right there standing in one spot where he destroyed two wetlands in the last two or three years. It's just a whole hot of things. It's unreal is what it is."

His next move is to document. He notifies government agencies that regulate pollution under the state and national clean air and water laws. He puts pictures in newspapers. He says getting polluters to comply with the law saves money and prevents other problems. "It is so much cheaper on the government to enforce the law than it is to let the violators get away with it," he said. "Just take erosion. If you let sediment leave the site, what does it do? It clogs up your ditches. What follows that? Floods. Water comes. It goes up in people's yards. What follows that? They complain to county commissioners, the city commissioners. So, what happens next? They have to send vehicles and all kinds of equipment and people out there to clean out the ditches. Who pays for that? You and I pay for that. It doesn't make sense. Why not make the guy pay who is making the money."

While James Holland leads the fight for the Altamaha, he isn't alone. Altamaha Riverkeeper Executive Director Deborah Sheppard says the group has inspired an increasing number of citizen volunteers. "And I know we're making a difference because every day people communicate with us about problems that would not have been addressed if they hadn't talked to us," said Deborah Sheppard. "And that's probably one of the best things that the River keeper movement has done around the country is begin the process of helping people understand that if we have a law in place to protect the environment, we all have a responsibility to help it be enforced."

Riverkeeper James Holland agrees. He sees the Altamaha differently from his days as a crab fisherman. He says he doesn't think anymore what he can take from the river, but what he can give back.