PODCASTEnvironmentally Speaking EP 28: River Keeper

March 29, 20220


This week we sit down with Narragansett Bay River Keeper, Kate McPherson. We discuss the keeper program and Save the Bay, which is the organization that houses Narragansett Bay, Riverkeeper and it actually has three keepers. So what does a River Keeper do? Take a listen as Kate shares her background and how she got into the position of a River Keeper. Tune in and find out!


Transcript: River Keeper

CLARICE: Hello, everybody.  Welcome to Environmentally Speaking.  I’m Clarice.  I’m coming at you with your questions and comments.  And today we’re doing things a little differently.  I have hijacked the show.  I’ve booted Marisa off.  I know it’s her firm, but I’ve kicked her out for today.  Instead I brought in a guest.  So today we’re talking to Kate McPherson.  She is the Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper and I have a ton of questions about river keeping.

KATE:  Thanks for having me, Clarice.

CLARICE:  So let’s start at the very beginning.  My first question which is obvious to me but might not be obvious to everybody else is how many people tell you that your job sounds like something out of a fantasy novel like Lord of the Rings style?

KATE:  Absolutely.  I’ve been told that I need my official Riverkeeper magical staff and that when I show up on the scene that it should definitely be in a puff of magical smoke with much glitter.  But, yeah, it’s an outstanding title and it’s part of what drew me to the position.  And Save The Bay which is the organization that houses Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper actually has three keepers.  So the keeper program comes from a multinational worldwide organization called Waterkeeper Alliance.  And Save The Bay has not only a Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper but also a Narragansett Baykeeper and a South Coastkeeper.

CLARICE:  You called it the Riverkeeper program.  They didn’t call it the river council?

KATE:  Maybe they should have.

CLARICE:  Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah.  I will gladly learn how to make cloaks for all of you.  Like I’m just going to lean into this.  That’s phenomenal.  So what does a Riverkeeper do?

KATE:  That is an excellent question.  And so a Riverkeeper really just can speak to their own strengths.  So a little bit about my background, I am a professional wetland scientist.  I’m a wetland biology and I also have a degree in wildlife biology.  So what I bring to the Riverkeeper program is unique from what somebody else might bring.  So I like to do a lot of freshwater wetlands restorations, things like dam removals to restore rivers and streams in our watershed, things like removing nonnative invasive species to make room for the native plants and trees and shrubs that wildlife need to live in.  And those types of habitats help to clean and improve water quality.  And I like to also think about how that intersection of water quality projects for human benefit and then also how can they also benefit habitats.  So it’s not just all about us all of the time.

[0:02:57] CLARICE:  It sounds like you’re kind of in charge of the overall health of the space, the health of the river.  I like that you talked about the intersection between human use and kind of keeping the integrity of – of that environment.  But it sounds like your focus is to just keep that river as close to natural as it can be, getting rid of the structures and the invasive species and all that sort of work.

KATE:  Sure.  And it’s not just restoration work.  A lot of what Riverkeepers do is policy work so low impact development, trying to get new development made in such a way that is sustainable for the future, policies about improvements to wastewater treatment facilities, for example.  So when you live in a city and you have a sewer system, all that waste goes to a treatment facility and there are permits that periodically come up for renewal.  And so in Narragansett Bay, our watershed is 60 percent in Massachusetts and 40 percent in Rhode Island, so there are many rivers that flow down into Narragansett Bay.  It’s definitely not just one.

And thinking about who can we work with, so the Riverkeeper doesn’t just work by herself.  She definitely needs to partner with lots of other groups and individuals that have been doing a lot of this advocacy work for way longer than I have to try and elevate certain things.  So I bring up this wastewater treatment example because they – we’ve got several wastewater treatment facilities in the Massachusetts portion of the watershed along the Taunton River that are old.

The permits may not have the highest and best technology for removing things like nitrogen and phosphorus and the science shows us that upgrades to those treatment plants would really have a measurable benefit to the water quality in Narragansett Bay.  And so applying pressure with groups like the Taunton River Watershed Alliance, for example, both of us using our voices to advocate and elevate a specific issue that might be kind of boring to an average person to make governments do the right thing.

CLARICE:  How much would you say that your job comes down to field work versus this sort of policy making and, maybe for lack of a better description, office work?  Do you get to do a lot of field work?

KATE:  I do get to do field work.  And one of the cool things about this job is that I sort of create my own field work.  So I’m partnering with the Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve.  They’ve let us borrow trail cameras and I have trail cameras set up in North Kingstown along the Mattatuxet River and I go out every couple of weeks, take the pictures and videos off the trail cameras.  And I’m working with a volunteer.  His name is Todd McLeish and he’s helping me identify all the critters that we’re finding.  So far we found a bunch of different species.  We found red fox.  We found coyote.  We have a great video of a white-tailed deer licking the camera.

[0:06:09] CLARICE:  That’s awesome.

KATE:  Including a wood duck which is a cute little migratory duck.  So they’re just coming back into the area and lots of other little sort of mammal critter species.  So that’s an example where I want to – we’ve done one dam removal in that river already and when we took the water level down and restored the river we found another older dam a little bit further upstream.  And so the camera project helps to show people who live there that it’s really easy to see wildlife that use a pond.  There’s not very many of them, but they’re typically pretty visible so things like painted turtles or you might see like a mallard or a goose out on the pond.  You might see something like a great blue heron fishing.  But in a river, rivers act as great travel corridors for wildlife and so they’re going to be a little bit more secretive and using a trail camera is a great way to show folks that the wildlife are here.  It might be different wildlife using the river than if we’re using a pond, but they’re definitely still here.

CLARICE:  Very cool.  Do you have a favorite field project that you’ve got to work on or that you got to create?

KATE: Yes.  So on another freshwater wetland restoration – I’m a freshwater wetland biologist so no shock there that I love doing that type of work.  I worked with the Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration, their Cranberry Bog Program.  They are currently working through permitting to get a permit to remove old commercial cranberry bogs at a place called Mill Brook Bog in Freetown, Massachusetts.

CLARICE:  Not far from me.

KATE:  Yeah.  Freetown is a beautiful town and this particular place Mill Brook Bog is a great place to go for a walk.  It’s open to the public.  Really good birding if you’re into that sort of thing and especially this time of year outstanding turtle watching.  I’ve seen more spotted turtles than I’ve ever seen in my life at this site.  And so what Save The Bay did for the Mass DER is we went out and looked at all of the vegetation that’s growing on those old commercial cranberry bogs before they do the restoration.  So those cranberry bogs – when you think of a cranberry bog – like you obviously live in the south close to Massachusetts and the climate is really good for cranberry growing there.  There’s a lot of flat wetlands.

And the way cranberries had been farmed for generations is you find a flat wetland, you add a little bit of sand, and you remove all the natural wetland plants and just plant little cranberry shrubs.  They’re tiny little shrubs.  They’re only like four inches tall.  And then when you stop farming them, eventually they will – seeds will colonize.  They’ll [inaudible] by birds or through wind and new plants will grow.  And if you just leave them alone, a lot of times these places just get sort of upland forest.  Even though it’s a bog because of all the sand that’s been placed on top, the wetland doesn’t usually bounce back in other words.  So it needs a little bit of help.

So we designed a project to look at all of the plants in this really large cranberry bog area, so I got to spend quite a few days traipsing around with my intern Shannon West and we identified hundreds of plants, saw lots and lots and lots of different birds including a couple rare for the region types and got a tremendous amount of information about what plants are there, how unique are those plants.  And that was able to tell us sort of how unique, how good quality is the habitat that’s there prior to the restoration.

Now Massachusetts DER is going to go in and loosen up the toil and create something called microhabitats where they’ve got little mounds for trees to grow on and little pools for turtles to hang out in and for other plants that prefer wetter roots to grow in.  And I’m really excited to see what that restoration looks like right after it’s done because it’s going to look – it’s going to look really startling and different right after it’s done.  But then also a growing season or two afterwards, we’re going to see all sorts of plants either deliberately planted through that restoration process or coming in from surrounding wetlands, so it’s going to be really interesting for a plant nerd like me.

[0:11:00] CLARICE:  Well, that sounds cool.  Do you have any projected dates or timelines when if anybody else is in the area when they can start kind of poking around?

KATE:  It all depends on when that permitting starts and I think it’s going to be starting soon and it’s going to be sort of seasonally dependent.  They’re going to time construction so that they disturb the least amount of wildlife.

CLARICE:  Oh, that’s very cool.  So I’m going to back way up.  How do we go from a freshwater wetland biologist – I’m imagining to get that degree you’re spending some time in the classroom and doing that.  How do you go from that to being out in a semi-abandoned bog with an intern staring at all of these, you know, rare for the area birds?  How did you find out about river keeping?  What was this journey?

KATE:  Oh, my goodness.  Well, so fresh out of college I’m working at a pet store and a friend of mine who took some of the wetland classes that I also took mentioned that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management was hiring.  She thought I’d be a great fit, so I worked for the Rhode Island DEM for 14 years doing freshwater wetlands permitting, so I had a lot of experience in the freshwater wetlands of the state of Rhode Island.  I’ve been to every town, every city in Rhode Island and I’ve probably bushwhacked through some kind of swamp or stream in all of them.

And so as I was at DEM, I became interested in riding bicycles.  Folks in the Office of Water Resources recruited me for things like the Blackstone Valley Greenway Challenge which is an adventure race that goes all the way through the Blackstone River Valley and things like riding bicycles for charity.  And so one day as I was riding my bicycle with a good friend of mine Kendra Beaver who also works at Save The Bay, she mentioned that the Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper position was open and did I know anybody who might be interested in applying.  And I don’t know that she thought I would apply, but, you know, through our conversations via bicycle throughout – turns out the Taunton River watershed, that’s one of our favorite places to ride bikes.

She had spoke so highly of Save The Bay and the good advocacy work that they do and in talking about the keeper programs especially and how they really get to respond to where the need is greatest and where their skills can be applied the most.  And so I took a chance in 2018 and I’m happy to – I’ve been part of Save The Bay for the past four years.  It’s really been a really, really interesting change from permitting projects that are definitely limited boy the state’s environmental law — I’m sure you and Marisa talk a lot about the limitations of the state’s regulations – to being in a role where I can really be the best advocate that I can be for all these habitats that I care an awful lot about.

[0:14:19] CLARICE:  That’s such a wild journey to go from – essentially it goes even further back.  It goes from college to a pet store to ride your bikes, kids.  And that’s how you get your dream job.  That’s crazy.

KATE:  Yeah.  The moral of that story is make good connections and, you know, be yourself and explore the things that you’re interested in and just stay open to new possibilities.

CLARICE:  Well, that’s very cool.  So you talked a little bit about how your friend made such a good impression talking about the advocacy work of Save The Bay.  Tell me a little bit more about Save The Bay just in general.

KATE:  Save The Bay is the environmental organization that has been around since 1970.  Our mission is to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, so we do that through three sort of main tenants.  We care a lot about water quality.  We care a lot about the habitats in and along the edges of the bay.  And we care a lot about how people get to access Narragansett Bay so things like making sure public access points are clearly marked, working towards parking near public access points, working towards shoreline access, making sure that the shoreline access that all Rhode Islanders can enjoy is common sense and, you know, clearly stated so that everybody knows that they can just walk along the shoreline and go swimming if they want to or collect [inaudible] if they want to.

And so the role of the Riverkeeper comes in because Narragansett Bay is not just a shoreline.  It’s not just the beaches.  It’s not just Rocky Point or Beavertail.  It’s not the water itself, but it’s also everything in its watershed that flows downhill impacts the water.  So it’s where you live.  It’s where I live.  I live 15 miles from the shoreline of Narragansett Bay, but what I and my neighbors might do on our lawns or like what might happen in a city and entering into storm drains, all of that even if you’re hundreds of miles away from Narragansett Bay eventually will make its way to a river and will flow down into the bay.

So it may seem like a little bit of a stretch to somebody who might not have sat down and thought an awful lot about watersheds, but if you live all the way up in Brockton, for example, and the wastewater treatment plant has a bad permit and can’t get it renewed and there’s too much nitrogen getting in the river, it not only affects the river, but it also affects the bay eventually.

[0:17:19] CLARICE:  I didn’t realize how expansive that was.

KATE:  It’s a huge watershed, all the way up past Worcester for the Blackstone River watershed and all the way up into Taunton, Brockton, South Shore just south of Boston for the Taunton.

CLARICE:  That’s a massive area.

KATE:  Taunton River watershed is a significant contributor to fresh water to the bay.

CLARICE:  Oh, I mean, I knew that the idea of you talking about collaborating with other organizations and other departments made sense given how small Rhode Island is and, you know, being on the boarder of Massachusetts, but listening to the fact that that watershed – it goes through so much space.  That’s so many organizations on the way that you have to partner with.

KATE:  And so like of course in an area this big with this many people living in it you have to pick and choose.  So it’s easy to get really overwhelmed in environmental advocacy and it’s always helpful to remind yourself that the Riverkeeper program is a program of one.  I get awesome interns and volunteers sometimes, but there’s only so much that I can do by myself.  And so a lot of the restoration work, either coastal restoration or freshwater restoration, always happens with partnerships.  So I mentioned the Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration.  They’re an outstanding partnership that we love doing projects with.  There are many in Rhode Island.  We do a lot of our advocacy in lockstep with other environmental advocates because if we all are saying that same strong message then it really gets the point across and helps to drive change.

CLARICE:  Yeah.  I can definitely see the overwhelms aspect of it, but that core focus is nice to know is still there.  So what, if any, advice would you have for somebody who’s maybe in the environmental sciences in college or is thinking about getting more involved in this sort of work either as a career or as a volunteer?  Would you have any guidance?

[0:19:32] KATE:  Yeah.  Absolutely.  So if you are a young professional and you are looking for job experience, environmental groups like Save The Bay do offer environmental internships.  So especially if you’re a young aquarist or you’re interested in learning aquarium trades, Save The Bay has an outstanding aquarium and offers internships of varying lengths for someone who’s interested in learning marine sciences, that type of stuff.  We also have habitat internships.

So my colleague Wenley Ferguson is our director of habitat restoration and she does a lot of work in salt marshes and coastal restoration, so she usually takes on interns for that.  We also have special projects that are discreet lengths so, for example, the special project where I needed someone who was an expert in trail cam identification.  If you’re a fresh biologist out of college with [inaudible] experience then you’ve probably been looking at a lot more mammal tracks than I have recently, so that fresh experience right out of school can really be valuable to professionals that have either small projects or larger projects.  I definitely – so there’s – there’s lots of avenues for folks if folks are coming out of school with freshwater wetland degrees or experience.  They can join the Society of Wetland Scientists.  There are special student memberships and also memberships for young professionals.  They have job boards on the website and offer online symposia on a wide variety of topics.  They’re also a global organization.

And I know there are also societies for restoration professionals, so if you have more of an environmental science background and not specifically a freshwater wetland background then you can look to Mass ECAN is an organization that is for restoration professionals and I definitely – I know that they have job listings.  And it can be challenging as an environmental scientist to find jobs especially if you go to like a traditional job search site and you type in biologist.  A biologist can mean anything from someone working in a lab to someone working with soil.  Lots of different folks, widely varying expertise so it can be really hard to sort of drill down on that.  But we’re fortunate in Rhode Island to have a lot of professionals and good networking in the region, not just Rhode Island, in Massachusetts, as well.

[0:22:29] CLARICE:  All right.  So for anybody who’s looking for an internship or work experience or have fresh mammalogy skills, there are tons of resources apparently, so many more than I thought.  My last question is is there anything about your job that you would love to share or anything I missed that you get really excited to talk about?

KATE:  Well, so it’s – I mean, it’s not all work and no play.  One of the great advantages of being the Riverkeeper is you get to go out on patrol.  So if you are interested in following me on Instagram, every time I go out on patrol I love to take some photographs.  You get to pick a river and kayak down the stretch of the river.  I typically do it with one or both of the other waterkeepers and we do things like snap pictures of suspicious looking outfalls.  We look for hot spots of trash where we can then maybe organize a river cleanup.  We look for anything suspicious, you know, maybe construction sites that aren’t managing their sediment.  Like, you know, sometimes you’ll drive by a construction site and you’ll see a silk fence flapping in the breeze.  It’s not helping anything if it’s not installed properly.

So although it’s definitely a super exciting and fun part of my job, but it also sort of – it’s important.  It’s definitely important because as waterkeepers we are the eyes and ears for the watershed for Narragansett Bay, for the south coast and we have the experience and expertise to call the right enforcement folks.  So if a big gaggle of fishing gear washes up on the coast and somebody sees it but doesn’t know who to call, they can call Dave Prescott our South Coastkeeper.  He knows exactly who to call, whether it’s somebody from the town or somebody from the state, to get that properly removed.

If you see a freshwater wetland – if you see a backhoe digging near ponds and you’re not sure if that person’s got a permit or not and you don’t know if you’re supposed to call someone at the town or someone at the state, you can call me at Save The Bay as your Riverkeeper and I’ll know exactly who to call and I’ll follow up with you to make sure in case you don’t know the right questions to ask to make sure that if the work is being done illegally it stops or if the work was being done in accordance with a permit that they follow all those permit conditions.

[0:25:09] CLARICE:  This is so exciting.  And I’m sorry.  You had shared something so valuable about the work that you do and, you know, involving people getting active in taking responsibility and making calls to help clean up on their end and that’s so important.  The idea of all three Riverkeepers going down the river in their kayaks is fantastic.  I love it.  So, Kate, thank you so much for taking time to teach us all about what you do and this just awesome sounding work.  Thank you for it.  It was very cool to hear about and learn from you.

KATE:  My absolute pleasure.

CLARICE:  All right, guys.  So thank you all for listening.  If you have any questions, comments, if you want to volunteer to make those three cloaks for our river council, which I’m now renaming them, let us know at Help@DesautelESQ.com.  You can also follow us on Instagram.  Send in your thoughts, your comments.  If there’s somebody you want us to interview, let me know.  I’ll reach out to them.  Have a good one, guys.

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