Starting in 2000, a new breed of water watchdog began cruising the region’s rivers, bays and coastlines, often leading to a full-throttle pursuit of polluters and other threats to water quality.

Riverkeepers, shorekeepers and coastkeepers patrol a dozen waterways around the region, acting as a “nautical 911,” fielding calls from citizens who want to report polluters but don’t know whom to call. The waterkeepers may investigate and alert government regulators.

Or, they may take things into their own hands. Some act like the Bay’s own bounty hunters—using the citizen suit provisions of the federal Clean Water Act to pursue polluters and bureaucrats all the way to the courthouse door.

If Charles Bronson had a boat—and was packing a cell phone rather than a shot gun—he might have made a good waterkeeper.

“They are the eyes, ears and voices of the body of water they protect,” said Erin Fitzsimmons, who coordinates the efforts of the waterkeepers in the Chesapeake Bay region. “They are the neighborhood watch for the water.”

They bring a new, hard-charging, results-oriented form of advocacy to water cleanup efforts, which some say reflects growing dissatisfaction with the health of the region’s waterways more than three decades after the Clean Water Act was enacted, and with the health of the Bay more than two decades after state and federal governments pledged to clean it up.

“The people who are supposed to watch the waters have failed,” said Fred Tutman, who patrols the Patuxent as one of the 12 waterkeepers now active in the Bay region. “People are frustrated by the inactivity, by the negligence, by the indifference.”

Each waterkeeper is part of the growing Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of 153 organizations that operate independently but share a common advocacy style and standard of doing business.

All of the waterkeepers are either sponsored by local organizations or are independent local organizations that must raise their own funds.

To be part of the international alliance, the local waterkeepers must submit a proposal to alliance officials in New York that summarizes the plan for their local water body and demonstrates that the local franchise will meet certain advocacy and organizational standards.

“It’s an umbrella organization, but it’s an upside down umbrella, a bottom-up organization,” Fitzsimmons said.

The group is perhaps best known for its charismatic president, Robert Kennedy, Jr., who has become one of the nation’s most celebrated environmental lawyers. But, Kennedy is just one of more than 400 full-time and part-time activists, attorneys and scientists saving rivers and bays on four continents.

“What sets us apart is the fact that the men and women who constitute the alliance take personal responsibility for the river, lake, bay, stream or inlet they represent,” said Steve Fleischli, the executive director of the alliance.

What unites the waterkeepers is the goal of clean water.

They all have different backgrounds. Tony Prochaska, the new riverkeeper for the Chester River, was most recently a stream ecologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Fred Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper, is a storied attorney who blocked a nuclear power plant from being built on the banks of the Potomac. One of the waterkeepers in the Bay region used to be a chiropractor.

“I’m leaving a job I loved,” said Prochaska, 35, who grew up on a farm in Carroll County and crabbed and fished the Chester as a boy. “But a part of me felt I wasn’t making enough of a difference. I believe this will fill that void. This is a program that can make a difference. This river makes the community. It’s the centerpiece of everything we’re about here. We need to protect it.”

All waterkeepers rely on the traditional tools of advocacy—lobbying, litigation, education, public relations, restoration and so on—but use these tools to greatly varying degrees.

In a sense, they are as different as the rivers, bays and coasts they represent. But all are focused on short-term, measurable results. Basically, they will resort to the tool that is most likely to get the quickest results.

In some cases, waterkeepers have been actively involved in restoration projects. Drew Koslow, the South Riverkeeper, and Jay Charland, the Assateague Coastkeeper, have been leading efforts to restore oyster reefs. Kelly has mobilized volunteers to build a “living shoreline” restoration project on the Severn that shows how specially designed marshes can be as effective at controlling shoreline erosion as riprap and bulkheads.

Other waterkeepers have relied more heavily on litigation as a tool. The Potomac Riverkeeper, for example, has participated in a number of successful lawsuits to block air and water pollution. The West/ Rhode Riverkeeper recently succeeded in removing a derelict barge that had been a nuisance on the river for years.

Still other waterkeepers have focused their efforts on local regulations and decisions. All of the water keepers in the Anne Arundel area, for example, have been active in fighting for tougher local storm water regulations. The James Riverkeeper is fighting to remove aging battleships that pose an “environmental time bomb.”

The fact that waterkeepers are driven by local issues separates them somewhat from other advocates for the Bay and its tributaries—they may, for instance, pay greater attention to runoff from local parking lots than regional farm lands. “They are focused on their river, and what they can do to protect their river,” Fitzsimmons said.

Although all waterkeepers have a boat and patrol their rivers and bays, there is no such thing as a normal day. “I wish I had an average day,” said Ed Merrifield, the Potomac Riverkeeper.

An average day might include anything from reporting a polluter to collecting evidence of a water quality violation to attending a town meeting.

Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, keeps a pie chart on his desk in Queen Anne that helps him divide his time among the various tactics he employs to improve water quality on his river. “Every one has a different idea about what it is I should be doing,” Tutman sighed.

On one recent day, he was on his way to Annapolis to testify on behalf of enforceable standards for water quality. On another recent day, he was organizing an annual river cleanup.

Asked why waterkeepers are growing so rapidly in the Bay watershed—there was only one waterkeeper in 2000—observers provide a variety of theories, ranging from frustration with the slow pace of Bay restoration to a growing “river movement” across the nation.

Some say the growth reflects a return to an aggressive environmental style that was more common when rivers burned. The growth of the waterkeepers, speculated Howard Ernst, a professor of political science at the Naval Academy, “has been fueled by public frustration” with mainstream environmental groups.

“The riverkeepers promise to take a more aggressive political course and to focus on specific local issues,” said Ernst, who is an honorary board member of the Chesapeake River Association, which sponsors the Severn Riverkeeper, and is the author of “Chesapeake Bay Blues,” a book about the politics of Bay restoration. “They start from the point that people have a right to clean water and clean air, and focus their energies on asserting that right.”

Other groups, he said, have “pursued a consensus-based approach that tends to pursue environmental advocacy with carrots and moral persuasion.” And, he said, many people are slowly concluding that such an approach has failed. The EPA recently acknowledged for that the region would fail to meet regional cleanup goals set for 2010 that were designed, in part, to avoid setting legally mandated deadlines and targets.

“The riverkeepers, baykeepers and coastkeepers are tapping into the growing frustration with the pace of restoration,” agreed Bill Street, who is the new executive director of the James River Association, which sponsors the James Riverkeeper. “People have spent a lot of time, money and effort on the Bay cleanup effort, and the Bay and its tributaries are indeed cleaner than they were 25 years ago. But, our rivers and the Bay are still facing major challenges, and people are demanding action to finish the job.”

But Street, who previously worked for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, thought the growth of the waterkeepers was less about frustration with mainstream groups and more about the fact that waterkeepers “see the river the same way river users do” and that people like knowing that their river has a local watchdog.

Some local and regional groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, say they are excited by the growth of waterkeepers in the Bay watershed.

“The riverkeepers play a critical local role in observing problems and holding government and polluters accountable,” said Roy Hoagland, a vice president with the CBF, which hosts a waterkeeper in the Bay Foundation’s office and has collaborated with the waterkeepers on legislation. “Saving the Bay requires saving the rivers that feed it, and CBF cannot do it alone.”

The rise of riverkeepers parallels what national river experts say is a steady increase in the number of local river groups since the birth of the modern environmental movement. It’s estimated that at least 2,500 groups have been created to protect or restore rivers and bays around the nation since the first Earth Day.

Hundreds of these local groups participate in an annual river rally, advocate for a federal “citizen’s agenda” for rivers and support an annual “river budget” proposal to Congress. A separate organization, called River Network, was created primarily to help river groups succeed—both politically and institutionally.

Rebecca Wodder, who runs a national river conservation group, American Rivers, says there are many reasons for the growth of the “river movement” in the United States, starting with the sad fact that about 40 percent of the United States’ rivers fail to meet water quality standards. Polls show that a majority of Americans are very concerned about the quality of their drinking water, she said.

Like Street, she cites a strong personal connection that many Americans have with local rivers and creeks as one reason for the growth of waterkeepers in the Bay watershed.

“America’s love of rivers runs deep,” said Wodder, who is based in Washington. “Rivers speak to the heart—almost everyone has a favorite river or stream. People simply enjoy playing in and along rivers. They’re like magnets that draw people to walk, boat, fish, swim and watch wildlife. Our love affair with rivers is one reason why people are so protective of them.”

For some river activists, that love affair borders on obsession. One “ river rat,” as river activists occasionally like to call themselves, decided one day to collect all the trash in the Mississippi River. So far, he’s collected hundreds of tons of trash and debris. Another river activist and self-styled performance artist recently became the first person to swim the entire Mississippi. Every year, a few people try to retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark—and quickly find that Mark Twain was right when he said the hardest part about going up the Missouri River is that you have to take the boat with you.

Riverkeepers are a particular breed of river advocate. The first was John Cronin, a former commercial fisherman and congressional aide hired in 1983 by the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association to patrol the Hudson River. Cronin developed a network of fishermen, environmentalists and others to collect evidence, report polluters and file lawsuits to enforce the Clean Water Act and other water protection laws.

This sort of “blue-collar environmen-talism,” as the group likes to say, is central to the Alliance’s philosophy. Kennedy joined the group one year later, and built a small army of Pace University law students to wage legal battles against Hudson River polluters.

Since then, the number of waterkeepers has grown dramatically.

Some waterkeepers are sponsored by existing local groups. The Chester Riverkeeper was sponsored by the Chester River Association, and the South Riverkeeper was sponsored by the South River Federation. Other waterkeepers are not affiliated with an existing local group but do have a board of directors who oversee their activities.

“They all focus on their own river or bay. That is what they are there for—to be the voice for their body of water and to respond to the community,” Fitzsimmons said.

That’s why Merrifield, the Potomac’s Riverkeeper, led the charge to stop the National Capital Skeet and Trap Club for spraying lead shot into Great Seneca Creek, a tributary to the Potomac River just north of Washington, D.C.

Lead shot might not make the list of top threats to the Potomac—a list that would probably include discharges from wastewater plants and polluted runoff from farms. But, community outrage over a visible problem—the lead is 4 inches thick in some places—drove Merrifield to enlist student lawyers at Georgetown University to stop the practice.

“When we get started with something we know is right, we won’t back off,” Merrifield said. “The waters of our nation are there for everybody to use and no one has the right to diminish the ability of others to use them.”

Some critics say the waterkeepers are too quick to pull the trigger. When peer-reviewed studies raised questions about the toxicity of the pfiesteria algae several years ago, a waterkeeper from outside the Bay region used legal means to seek confidential information about the scientists and their research—an action condemned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And, some say, waterkeepers occasionally aim at the wrong targets. Most of the pollution fouling the Bay, comes from farms, wastewater plants, cars and Midwestern power plants—not from gun clubs.

Nonetheless, many waterkeepers find litigation to be one of their most effective tools. Merrifield has been working with other groups to file more lawsuits on behalf of the Potomac and its tributaries. For example, Merrifield filed suit to block the wastewater treatment plant for Hagerstown from dumping untreated and partially treated waste into Antietam Creek.

“There is still enough pollution going into the Potomac that we still need to find the sources of the pollution and do our best to get it stopped,” Merrifield said.

Riverkeeper lawyers may be getting busier. A draft EPA strategic plan recently indicated that the region will fail to clean up the Bay by 2010—opening the possibility that states will be legally vulnerable for their failure to meet water quality standards. The draft plan indicates that the region will fall far short of goals sets for dissolved oxygen, underwater grasses and nitrogen reduction. States will come closer to—but also miss—targets for phosphorous and sediment.

The waterkeepers recently hired a lawyer to address the Bay’s pollution problems on a regional basis. Bill Gerlach, who was recently an attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has moved to New York to address the Bay’s water quality woes “in a waterkeeper style,” Merrifield said.

Alliance Executive Director Fleischli said Gerlach’s first job will be to go after individual polluters rather than the agencies responsible for meeting the cleanup mandates of the federal Clean Water Act. “We like to focus on where the rubber meets the road,” he said.

Hiring Gerlach is part of a larger effort by the Waterkeeper Alliance to “connect and leverage the strength of the waterkeepers in the Bay watershed to work together on issues of importance to them all,” Fitzsimmons said.

So far, regional officials have avoided complying with the cleanup requirements of the federal Clean Water Act by promising that they would meet cleanup goals for the Bay and tributaries by 2010.

The goal was intended to avoid the development of a “Total Maximum Daily Load” for the Bay and its tributaries, which would set legally enforceable caps on how much pollution could be discharged. The target was approved by the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the EPA administrator; the District of Columbia mayor; and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures, in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.

But, waterkeepers like Merrifield said the Bay would be farther along the path to recovery “if we just enforced the laws that are on the books.” Now that the goals included the Chesapeake 2000 agreement are in jeopardy, the waterkeepers and their lawyers may get their chance. Three waterkeepers in the Bay region have already joined together to sue the EPA to take responsibility for setting and enforcing TMDLs away from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Fleischli would only that say that the waterkeepers “won’t rule out” a lawsuit against more states that have failed to meet their cleanup goals.

Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, charged that the tributary strategies—riverspecific cleanup plans—developed by the states were non-binding political compromises that aren’t getting implemented. The elected leaders and agency officials who drafted the tributary plans are, he said, “paralyzed by decisions that might change the status quo. They are the system, they are the establishment or they are bureaucrats who are really only there to warm a chair.

“They don’t want to regulate, they want to provide incentives, and they wind up spending money on the things for which we can find money,” which are not always the things that improve water quality. “The benchmarks should not be spending, but measures of environmental health,” Tutman said.

“For too long, we’ve been dealing with symptoms and not problems,” he said. In his view, many other environmental groups have, literally and metaphorically, been “picking up trash rather than going after the source of the trash.”

Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper, a lawyer who defeated a nuclear power plant that would have impacted striped bass spawning ground, said that the waterkeepers, ultimately, “are about results.”

“We are not about redundant studies,” he said. “We are not about endless meetings. We are not about glitzy newsletters.”

“Some people say we’re just a self-appointed posse,” Tutman added. “Does this mean we’re loose cannons and lone guns? No. We’re not the sheriff. We’re experienced advocates using the citizen tools available to all of us. These waters belong to all of us.”