I first meet Meredith Brown at her third-floor office off a busy street in the west end of Ottawa. After some small talk she hands me a business card. Glancing down at the card, I quickly find what I am looking for. There, below her name, stands a lone word set in blue italics… Riverkeeper. The unusual job title is the reason I am here.
Meredith is “The Riverkeeper” for the Ottawa River, which flows just a few blocks north of her office. Aided by a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, her job is to protect the health of the Ottawa River and its tributaries. It’s a formidable task given the sheer size of the river system.
The Algonquin people, who lived along its banks, called the river “Kitchissippi”, meaning “Great River”. The name certainly rings true. From its headwaters in the Laurentian Mountains of central Quebec, the river runs over 1200 kilometres before draining into the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. Its watershed is the size of Bangladesh (more than 140,000 square kilometres), and includes over 200 municipalities in Ontario and Quebec.
Here in Ottawa, I had the chance to speak with Meredith about her role as Riverkeeper, and what she’s learned from her work protecting the great river.
Can you tell us about Ottawa Riverkeeper and how it got started?
MB: Ottawa Riverkeeper is a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting our rights to swim, drink and fish the Ottawa River and its tributaries. We bring together volunteers, communities, businesses and all levels of government to find solutions to the problems that threaten the health of our river and its watershed.
The charity was started by a group of concerned citizens who recognized the enormity of the threats facing the Ottawa River and realized that there was no person, no group and no government agency dedicated to protecting and restoring river health. They held several public meetings and about 10 individuals did the important early work to start a charitable organization. One of the individuals, George Brown, a lawyer, persuaded the group to join the International Waterkeeper Alliance, led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. After two years (around 2001) the dedicated volunteers became a federally registered charity and a licensed member of Waterkeeper Alliance. The next important step was to find a leader for the organization, a person who would become “The Riverkeeper”.
When I was hired I was a one-person team, so I got to work building a community of volunteers and supporters with a passion for freshwater protection. Fast-forward 12 years and I now have a team of eight staff and hundreds of volunteers who help us.
Meredith, you are known as “The Riverkeeper” for the Ottawa River. That must serve as great conversation fodder at cocktail parties. What exactly does a Riverkeeper do?
MB: It is a bit of a daunting job title, but I am honoured to be the Riverkeeper for the Ottawa River. As the Riverkeeper I wear many hats; watchdog, guardian, educator, policy analyst, researcher, investigator, scientist, ombudsperson. It is my job to understand what is threatening the health of the river and who is ultimately responsible or accountable for fixing the problems. Easier said than done.
As the Riverkeeper I represent the people who live in the watershed so a big part of my job is to listen to people and figure out what is most important to them, what they value about the Ottawa River. For example, most people want a river where they can swim without getting sick, they want public access to the river so they can launch their canoe, have a picnic or fish from the shore.
A big part of my job is reactionary, like responding to pollution hotline calls. A very important part of my job is strategic, figuring out what the biggest problems are and how we can solve them. Solving problems almost always involves many people and often many governments, and often involves two provinces. So a big part of what I do as a Riverkeeper is bring people together to find solutions.
Let’s hear about one of your success stories. Can you share a recent example of one of your initiatives or projects that made a positive impact?
MB: I’ve worked a lot on the issue of sewage pollution. When I first became the Riverkeeper I was approached by the father of a competitive slalom kayaker who was concerned that his son was training on a course in Ottawa and he often found himself paddling through raw sewage. I investigated and learned that there was a big combined sewer at the slalom course that frequently dumped untreated sewage into the Ottawa River every time it rained. It turns out that the city was dumping untreated sewage into the river hundreds of times every year! I immediately set out to stop this common practice. I was determined to make everyone in Ottawa aware of this practice and as you can imagine, people were shocked to discover that in the twenty-first century we are still dumping raw sewage into our rivers – the very river we draw our drinking water from and swim in.
I’m proud to say that just this year we had a great breakthrough. All levels of government (municipal, provincial and federal) came together to fund the Ottawa River Action Plan to reduce water pollution from combined sewer spills. Today, the City of Ottawa has reduced the amount of untreated sewage going into the river by 80% and when the final phase of their plan is constructed they will have reduced sewage spills by about 95%. This is a great success that I am proud to have been involved in. There is still a great amount of work to do to reduce pollution from municipal sewage on the Ottawa River, but as my engineering professor once told me “you can’t build Rome in a day.”
How do you think your work has impacted the Ottawa community?
MB: The Ottawa community has awakened to the beauty and importance of the river that flows through their community. Our community of volunteers and followers has grown to about 10,000 people. We have individuals and businesses proud to support us and be involved. This year our annual Riverkeeper Gala saw 350 leaders from our community come together to celebrate the magnificent Ottawa River and find ways to get involved. We definitely have a united and strong community ready to stand up to protect their river.
From your experience, what are the biggest threats to the health of the Ottawa River?
MB: Water pollution is a major threat. We have effluent from pulp mills and municipal sewage flowing into the river. Pesticides and fertilizers from agriculture are a problem. Habitat loss is a problem, particularly in the urban regions – loss of wetlands, headwater streams, forest cover. The Ottawa River is one of Canada’s most highly regulated rivers – there are over 50 major dams in the watershed. The dams change the natural flow regime of the river and create concrete barriers for migrating species, all resulting in a loss of biological diversity. The American Eel is now endangered in the Ottawa River where it once made up about 50% of the fish biomass in the river. This amazing fish gets chopped up by the turbines at hydro-electric dams when it is making its way down river to spawn in the Atlantic Ocean.
What do you think it will take to sustain a clean, healthy river system for generations to come?
MB: I think it will take leadership and collaborative action. We must work together across sectors and across political boundaries if we want to sustain and restore a healthy river system. Ottawa Riverkeeper is leading the way and we are very proud of our recent Ottawa River Summit that brought together key watershed players to address this very question you asked.
If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your work as Riverkeeper?
MB: I think the biggest lesson is that many people want to help but are not sure what to do. With solid and positive leadership, I’m convinced we can do just about anything.
How can people get involved with or help support Ottawa Riverkeeper?
MB: People can get involved at so many levels! There are actions you can take yourself that will be helpful – simple actions like taking care not to use personal care products that contain microbeads or triclosan. Be informed – follow us (social media, newsletter) to learn more about issues impacting river health and how you can make a difference. Volunteer your time, we have many different ways volunteers help us from water quality testing, to translation to mapping to event planning. Of course supporting us with a financial contribution is very helpful. We are a registered charity and finding money to pay the dedicated staff, who are our biggest asset, is difficult. If you like having someone looking out for your river, investigating pollution and teaching youth (our future leaders) then please donate.
Meredith, your commitment to making a difference is truly inspiring. What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?
MB: Never lose sight of your goal and find a compelling way to articulate your vision. Gather a team of people who can help you make it happen. You need champions and people of influence on your team.
As the Ottawa Riverkeeper, Meredith Brown is a strong independent voice for the Ottawa River and advocate for improved water protection in Canada. She was recently named a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Visit the Ottawa Riverkeeper website for more information, or to help support and get involved with the organization.