In the late 1980s, Phil Wallin, an employee of the Trust for Public Land in New Mexico, saw serious problems along the Rio Chama. When he looked for a local group that could help him find solutions to the river’s problems, there were none. The few people who wanted to do something didn’t know how or where to turn to for help forming an organization that could protect the river they and their families cherished.
So Phil had an idea: Create an organization that could assist local citizens working to protect and restore their rivers and watersheds. Phil packed up his family, moved to Portland, Oregon and hired Lindy Walsh. The two of them worked out of Phil’s basement, going without pay for months as they struggled to put River Network together. Jim Compton provided the young group with some initial start-up money and became founding president.
At nearly the same time, across the country in Vermont, Henry “Tom” Bourne, Jack Byrne, and E. William Stetson III, came together to create River Watch Network. The group was born from a successful 20-year program on Vermont’s Ottauquechee River that engaged citizens and students in monitoring water quality and galvanizing community support to successfully clean up the grossly polluted river. River Watch Network’s goal was to establish a network of programs based on this citizen-participation model.
With start-up support from Laurence S. Rockefeller, Jack Byrne bravely took on the job of Executive Director and Tom Bourne served as Founding Chair. Tom had the pioneering notion that local citizens around the world could, with the right tools, clean and restore their rivers. Over the years, he became much more than Chairman of the Board. He was River Watch Network’s philosopher, surrogate father, humorist, grouch, fund-raiser and resident dreamer!
In the 1990s, River Watch Network extended its work from New England to the watersheds of the Hudson, the Mississippi, the Rio Grande, and even the Danube, forming partnerships with citizens, schools, businesses, service clubs, tribes, state and local government, and conservation groups, and giving them the tools needed to understand and solve river problems in their communities through workshops, technical support and consultation, publications, and other tools. Data gathered by these volunteers was used by state water quality agencies, regional planning commissions, local planning commissions, departments of public works, conservation districts, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and non-profit conservation agencies. By the end of the decade, River Watch Network was supporting 67 projects on over 107 rivers. Its services had reached over 15,000 volunteers.
Meanwhile, River Network also rapidly expanded its original focus in the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest and beyond. In 1995, it brought together approximately a dozen leaders of river conservation groups throughout the U.S. to share strategies and identify common needs. In 1998, it launched a new Clean Water Act training program. In 1999, the first National River Rally was held in Minnesota with 125 participants from 28 states.
As the new millennium neared, the staff of River Network and River Watch Network met to discuss ways to strengthen their common work through joint projects. It became clear that there was great synergy between the missions and programs of the two organizations. The mission, programs and culture of the two organizations matched well. River Watch Network provided river activists with tools to measure the health of their river, and River Network’s programs help activists turn concern and information into action.
It also became clear that river protection could be better served with more than joint projects. Merger discussions began. In September 1999, in a rare merger of non-profit organizations, the trustees of both groups voted to merge into one.
Since 2000, River Network has grown, our programs and reach have expanded and evolved, and we are now leading one of the fastest growing conservation movements in the U.S. — more than 2,000 state, local and regional non-profits now have freshwater protection as their primary mission. Nearly 80% of those groups didn’t exist when we began our work in 1988. As these groups mature, we can expect the next decade to be one of unprecedented accomplishment for watershed protection.
And it must be, because the time for action is now. Mounting population pressures, climate change, and a host of other pressures could easily do irreparable harm to rivers and their watersheds in the next generation. By working together as never before, and with the help of everyone who cares about rivers and water quality and quantity, we have a real chance to rise to the challenges in the years ahead.