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Shining a Spotlight on Water Defenders

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For too long, we have paid little attention to our planet's most crucial natural resource: water. Sadly, most of what we hear is not great news -- massive contaminations, scarcity, areas of high stress and more. This isn't exactly reassuring when you consider that water is a precious resource on which all living creatures rely. If we expect to live in a world with beautiful waterways, sustained fisheries and a healthy environment, we must invest a significant level of attention and detail to defending and restoring our precious water sources. Clean water is a fundamental right, and as a community we have a responsibility to protect that right. In honor of World Water Day today, we'd like to pay tribute to some of our favorite water defenders -- the individuals, businesses and organizations working for clean water.

The rumblings of a shift and the ebbing tide of attention

In 1966, "a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen" formed Riverkeeper. Initially named the Hudson River Fishermen's Association (HRFA), this organization stood to take back its community's right to the Hudson River, a right that had been slowly stripped from its hands as years of pollution permeated the river and its wildlife. Soon, using two little-known laws from the turn of the century, HRFA stopped Penn Central from discharging oil into the Croton River, which flows into the Hudson. This was only the beginning, as other heroic leaders formed waterkeeper organizations throughout the country to protect their local community's access to clean water for swimming, drinking and fishing.

With this momentum, the 1970s ushered in a new era of attention with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the start of the decade. In 1972, the bipartisan Clean Water Act was passed, bestowing legal protections upon the nation's waterways and the communities that depend on them. More legal protections soon followed: the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the 1992 Clean Vessel Act and the 2000 BEACH Act. Slowly, conditions began to improve.

Despite this progress, it is evident we have drifted off course. Many of the safeguards that were put into effect nearly 40 years ago have been gamed and eroded, or simply ignored. Today, our waters face threats from sources large and small, on a scale bigger than ever. We're less than three months into 2014, and we can already point to several examples, such as the Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia, a Duke Energy coal slurry spill in North Carolina and a pipeline explosion in North Dakota, to name just a few. This doesn't even begin to consider what New York Times' Andrew Revkin calls the slow drip environmental issues -- impacts from years of coastal development, our reliance on fossil fuels, and our consumptive habits. Many of our waterways are unfit for swimming or shellfish harvesting due to high levels of bacteria from stormwater runoff; there are rivers throughout the southeast and beyond whose fish contain too much mercury and heavy metals for safe consumption.

This devolving state of our water is indicative of our collective distraction. We have lost the critical mass required to adequately produce the outcome that all living things need to thrive: clean water.

The next generation of defenders

Now, for the good news. There is still a passionate and committed community of water defenders in every corner of the world, who are working harder than ever to bring attention to the cause of waterway protection.

For example, after Murray Fisher recognized the growing disconnect between kids and the natural environment a little more than 10 years ago, he co-founded the New York Harbor School. Fisher identified education as instrumental in inspiring change, and we agree. For that reason, Water Defense launched a project with Cape Cod Community College to test local contaminants and keep waters clean. In pursuit of similar goals, Charleston Waterkeeper joined forces with the College of Charleston and its Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences to launch and operate a recreational water quality monitoring program to regularly test local recreational hotspots in the Charleston Harbor Watershed and provide the data to the public to determine which waterways are safe.

Within the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of more than 200 local waterkeeper organizations with boots on the ground, there is a growing presence of new leaders eager to confront the challenging landscape ahead. There are waterkeeper organizations being established in parts of the world where such dedication and commitment to protecting a natural resource has never existed in recent times, such as the Upper Tigris Waterkeeper in Iraq, the Himalayan Glacier Waterkeeper in Nepal and the many Guardianes y Vigilantes throughout Latin America.

There are efforts taking place on both a local and global scale, through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the Sierra Club Water Sentinels, charity: water, Matt Damon's Water.org, Clean Water Action, Global Water Initiative and those that make up the River Network. Each of these groups, including, of course, our own Water Defense (nationally) and Charleston Waterkeeper (locally), is advocating for clean water.

Local mobilization is essential and powerful, as is evident in the recent fracking moratorium passed by the Los Angeles city council. New technologies arm communities with valuable tools, such as the SwimGuide app, which gives the public direct access to water quality information, and OPFLEX, an open-celled foam technology that absorbs contaminants and repels water for use in both testing and clean up.

And we can't forget companies like Patagonia, TEVA and KEEN, which have all taken action to protect the playgrounds they and their customers love to enjoy. There are brands like New Belgium Brewing Company that recognize both their reliance and their impact on clean water and work actively to minimize their footprint and prioritize water stewardship through every level of their operations.

The list goes on, and yet we need more defenders to step up. The burden is too great and too important to rest on the shoulders of a few. Our greatest chance for success will be when we focus our collective attention on that which gives us life. What better way to celebrate World Water Day than to become a clean water defender and get involved with one of the many clean water organizations working to protect our world's waters.

Follow Charleston Waterkeeper on Twitter -- @ChasWaterkeeper.

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