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River Rally Rocks the Planet

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I'm often asked how I manage to be hopeful for the future when I spend a great deal of time publishing news about the daunting environmental problems impacting the world. I reply that it's because of the passion and commitment of the people I know who work hard every day to protect the planet we all share.

There's no better example of the warriors working toward a sustainable future than the 700 people who attended River Rally in Portland, OR May 4-7. For the first time, River Network and Waterkeeper Alliance joined forces to host River Rally with attendees from more than 40 U.S. states as well as Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, India, Iraq, Mexico, Peru, Senegal and the United Kingdom.

The opening reception included a Tribal Invocation by Gerald Lewis, a Yakama Nation Tribal Councilman and Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson gave the evening's keynote address.

The following morning began with Alexandra Cousteau, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and founder of Blue Legacy, relaying "the need to tell our stories" and how "we have to shine the light on the important work people are doing" to protect the world's water.

During the four days of the conference, water advocates spent time in workshops that shared best practices for watershed restoration, stormwater management, water quality monitoring, water and energy conservation, green infrastructure, habitat restoration, safe drinking water and more.

The keynote speaker for Saturday eventing was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council and president of Waterkeeper Alliance, who was introduced by James Curleigh, CEO of Keen Footwear, one of the leading sponsors of the Rally.

Curleigh's exuberance shined through as he philosophized on "living a HybridLife" -- having a commitment to create, play and care. He then introduced Kennedy, referring to him as "a legend and the ultimate water warrior."

Kennedy also keynoted a rally in Portland with more than 400 people on May 7 opposing the exporting of coal and six coal export terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington that would ship 150 million tons of coal per year from Wyoming and Montana to Asia.

The last night of the conference was the River Heroes Reception, which celebrated the work of many of the water advocates through the presentation of awards from their colleagues.

Throughout the conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with many of the Keepers and River Network affiliates to get the skinny on their work.

One of the most interesting stories I heard came from Nabil Musa, the Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper. Musa discussed the many problems Iraq's watershed faces due to pollution and degradation of the rivers themselves, and upstream water diversion projects. He also mentioned the challenges he faces as an advocate in a country where government decision-makers view the rivers as abstract resources that they can pollute, divert, drain and trade away without consideration of the communities and ecosystems that are destroyed.

Danielle Katz, founder and executive director of Rivers for Change, talked about the 12 Rivers in 2012 campaign that will explore, sample and record conditions on 12 critical California rivers as they paddle from Source to Sea down these watersheds. The campaign will highlight the health of these local ecosystems to help promote the interconnectedness and interdependence of our states' communities on this precious resource.

I met with Carla Garcia Zendejas, a board member of Bahia Magdalena Baykeeper and Tijuana Waterkeeper. Bahia Magdalena works along the Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Julio Solis serves as Magdalena Baykeeper and works to protect mangroves and gray whale breeding grounds against unsustainable large-scale tourism development. Tijuana Waterkeeper is on the U.S.-Mexico border in Baja California. Margarita Diaz serves as Tijuana Waterkeeper and works to improve conditions of the Tijuana River watershed due to challenges from the lack of sewage infrastructure, and educates the public and governmental officials on the consequences of polluting the waterway.

Cathy Kellon and Kate Carone from Ecotrust talked about the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative that focuses on restoring salmon spawning and rearing habitat to ensure recovery of Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead.

Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich shared his story about trying to reverse a culture of non-compliance with state, federal and tribal clean water laws. From addressing toxic runoff to holding dischargers accountable, Spokane Riverkeeper is restoring a river that for generations has been the main vein of the great Inland Northwest.

Brenda Archambo, president of Sturgeon For Tomorrow, explained the importance of protecting the bottom-dwelling, ancient species of lake sturgeon and how she assists fisheries managers in the rehabilitation of this species that made its first appearance about 136 million years ago.

I sat down with Krystyn Tully, vice president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, who told me about the new Swim Guide, an app that makes it easy to explore and enjoy the best beaches near the Great Lakes, California Coast, Florida and Alabama.

While hanging out in the hotel lobby, I ran into Hans Cole from Patagonia, the sponsor of the scholarship fund for River Rally. I thanked him for his support and he replied, "We know how important it is for grassroots activists working on the front lines of the environmental crisis to get the right training and to feel connected to a larger community."

Thanks to the leadership of executive directors Marc Yaggi from Waterkeeper Alliance and Todd Ambs from River Network for having the foresight to combine efforts and create the largest international gathering of water protection advocates.

I'm grateful for the time I spent with these incredible water warriors who are making a difference in their communities and local watersheds. There's nothing like spending five days with kindred spirits in the lush Pacific Northwest to rejuvenate the soul and rekindle the fire to go back home and continue the work of protecting our planet.

Stefanie Penn Spear is editor of EcoWatch.org.

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