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Q&A: Tracy Brown, next President and Hudson Riverkeeper


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‘The Hudson River is really where my heart is. I think we have a great team and great momentum, and I look forward to all the tremendous work that we’re going to get done in the coming decades.’

Tracy Brown on the patrol boat

As she prepares to take the role of President and Hudson Riverkeeper, Tracy Brown shared some thoughts about the river, the challenges and the opportunities ahead.

How does it feel coming back to Riverkeeper?

It feels really exciting, and heartwarming, to be welcomed back to Riverkeeper in this new role. I had a great experience for the past seven years working on Long Island Sound, and made a lot of great partnerships. I was able to learn about ecological restoration in particular, and the type of projects we can implement on the ground to help with resiliency and help with water quality. Now I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned back to the Hudson, back to my home watershed; and to hear from the folks at Riverkeeper about what they’ve been working on, and what their accomplishments and priorities have been in the past seven years.

I’m also looking forward to working where I live, again. There’s nothing like working to protect the watershed that you live in, and the river that you swim in and paddle on and sail on, and that you raised your family enjoying. The Hudson River is really where my heart is. So it’s a privilege to get to come back to Riverkeeper for a second chapter in my new role.

Tell me about your passion for the Hudson. When did it start?

As a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, we had a lookout point where we would go to look out to the skyline of New York City, but of course that was always looking over this beautiful river and seeing the river in this landscape. As a teenager, when we wanted to go somewhere fun and exotic, we would go to Nyack and see the river up close. When my husband and I were starting our own family and we were looking to move out of the city into a more natural setting, I knew that the Hudson River and the river valley was where I wanted to live. We started looking, and some friends introduced us to Sleepy Hollow, and they brought us down to our little neighborhood beach club. We have one of the very rare, remaining neighborhood beach clubs where you get to swim in the river. And that really sealed the deal for me. We now live about a mile from our old beach club, and we have raised our two kids swimming in the river, paddling in the river, sailing in the river.

The Hudson really is deeply woven into the fiber of our family life, and our sense of place. If we’re home, walking in Rockefeller Park, or having a swim, we can feel that connection to the river. Also, if we’re down in New York City and we see the Hudson, or if we’re up by Albany, or any other place within the Hudson Valley, when we’re near the river, we always feel that connection, and that sense of home.

When you were with Riverkeeper earlier, what did you work on? What achievements are you most proud of?

I was at Riverkeeper for seven years, from 2007 to 2014, and it was a very productive time for me. I started out as the first Director of Communications for Riverkeeper, because I was coming from a communications strategy and design tech background. I wanted to help the environmental movement tell their story better, and cut through the noise and cut through the partisanship, and unify people around our shared interest in a healthy, clean environment and clean water in particular.

Through that work, I got very interested in the question of how the water quality and the ecological health of the river was. Back in those days, a lot of the focus was on targeting pollution and reducing pollution, which is still a priority for Riverkeeper. But we weren’t answering the question as much – how’s the water, how’s the river, how are the fish, how are the fowl, what is the state of the river. And I was really interested in that story, because as a resident who was swimming in the river and talking to people about the river, I knew that was a question people had that was not easy to answer. So in pursuit of that answer, I got more involved with John Lipscomb, the boat captain, and the work he was doing partnering with scientists on Columbia University’s Lamont campus on the Hudson, to start to answer those questions. And over a period of time I transitioned out of the communications focus into advocacy around cleaning up the water.

Once we documented the sources of the problems, including sewage discharges in particular, then the work was engaging in solutions. And that was very exciting. I enjoyed that tremendously. One of the highlights for me of that period of work was initiating and working for passage of the New York State Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law, which is the law that requires public notification when sewage has been spilled anywhere in New York State. That was deeply gratifying, and a lot of fun.

What kind of impact are you seeing from the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law?

Well, I will say the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law is the gift that keeps on giving. We got it passed in 2013, and at that time there was almost zero visibility into the state of disrepair of the pipes that run underneath all of our communities and our homes and businesses, moving our wastewater out to sewage treatment plants.

Once we started to see how often those systems were failing, and the locations where they had really high failure rates, then it mobilized a statewide effort, and dollars, to start to address the problem. Because there’s no denying that people should not be exposed to raw sewage and other toxins that come in our wastewater, in our rivers, in our streams, at our coastlines. It’s unsafe and it’s unsanitary. Once we were able to daylight the problem with this notification requirement, it stimulated hundreds of millions of dollars in investment – billions at this point – as we move forward. The state grants continue to be made available to communities who need it. And none of that would have happened if public notification of sewage spills wasn’t required.

What in particular are you excited to work on?

I’m excited for all of the different aspects of the work at Riverkeeper, because I think it’s all mission-critical. At this time, I think one of the pieces that I’ll be able to bring in more emphasis and experience on is really leaning into ecological restoration projects and strategies that we can bring to the Hudson Valley to help our communities prepare for a changing climate, and its impact on their ecosystems and their communities. In particular, things like dam removal, and increasing river connectivity, and increasing the ability of rivers to manage flood conditions and heavy rain conditions; green infrastructure and other projects that target stormwater, so we can be sure that when we do have these flashy rain events – which will be ever increasing in our region – we don’t get overwhelmed and inundated, and that we have systems in place that can slow down the flow of that water and absorb it into our landscape along the way, and not just rush everything from the landscape out into the open river. These types of strategies, I think, are what we really need to be leaning into.

There’s expertise at Riverkeeper to do this work, so I’m interested in helping to bring it to a larger scale, and also taking that expertise and getting it out to as many partners that we can reach, and helping other practitioners or potential practitioners of ecological restoration projects, so the region can really be adapting, in the right time frame, to protect our ecosystems and the way of life that draws so many people to live in the Hudson Valley and keeps us here.

What are the biggest challenges in our work right now?

The biggest challenges that we’re facing are all stemming from climate change. Climate change is the driver of a cascading set of issues. Because of the impacts of climate change, and the stress it’s putting on our environment and our communities, it’s not even enough to continue to do the good work that we’ve been doing at the pace and scale we’ve been doing it at. We actually have to do it at a faster pace, and a larger scale, even just to maintain the quality of life we’re already familiar with.

This means working very hard to get projects on the ground that focus on ecological restoration and preservation; holding on to the critical habitats that we already have in place, like our coastal marshes, our inland wetlands, all of our connected river systems. It also means focusing – as Riverkeeper has so successfully – on blocking old, polluting energy installations and projects. Really holding New York State accountable, and the federal government accountable, to achieving targets that are set for greenhouse gas reductions, and making sure that the energy that is sited on the river, and delivered to the river towns and Hudson Valley communities, is from renewable sources.

We need to be working on both mitigating the impact of climate change as much as we possibly can, and also starting the adaptation. Because changes are coming. We’re seeing it already. We need to be working as earnestly as we can on both of those tracks. That will be our biggest challenge.

What advantages does Riverkeeper have in meeting these challenges?

Riverkeeper has an amazing history, more than five decades. It’s an organization that really came from the people, from communities. In our case it was the fishing community, stepping forward through the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, to protect their way of life and their love of the river and the creatures in it, and their interdependence for their own livelihoods on a healthy river. They were the founders of the movement that became modern day Riverkeeper. So we’ve always come from the community and been of the community. And while we’ve developed great areas of expertise among staff – such as lawyers and scientists and professional lobbyists and advocates – we still are very much rooted in community, and reliant on community partnership to do the work that we do.

It’s our goal to amplify and support local voices, adding extra muscle and visibility where needed for communities that are under threat, and when the river itself is under threat, to be that voice. That has been a really great approach that has served Riverkeeper well, and I think it will continue to serve Riverkeeper very well.

I think we also have the great advantage of working for a river that is iconic, and so much a part of the American story. It’s gorgeous. The Hudson Valley is spectacular, and beloved, and full of so many amazing natural and cultural assets, and gems. People care, and people want to help the Hudson.

It’s also one of the success stories that people can point to and say, look, we can push some of our systems to the brink of polluted destruction, but then if we really focus and put our energies together to bring them back, we can bring them back as well. Being a model of success is inspiring and important. And it’s certainly, in the case of Riverkeeper, some of what motivated the creation of more than 300 other Waterkeepers on waterways all around the globe now. They saw the success on the Hudson and they said, OK, this is a model that works, let’s bring it to our waterway. We want to keep being that example, and share what we learn, and spread those models of success – as well as learning from other Waterkeepers and other groups and bringing whatever models we see that can work for our communities here as well. I think we have a great team and great momentum, and I look forward to all the tremendous work that we’re going to get done in the coming decades.

Was water always a focus for you?

Growing up in Northern New Jersey, in Ridgewood, we also spent a good part of our summers on Martha’s Vineyard. And the Vineyard had a huge influence in terms of allowing me and my sisters to be in the water all the time, which we were. It was our playground, and it really developed a deep connection for all of us that continues today.

My father and his family have a long history as water lovers and seafaring people. We have a family history of service in the Navy and working in the merchant marines. One of my sisters served in the Navy not that long ago. And my Dad always had small boats for us to do a little sailing and get out on the water when we were kids as well. So water has always been our go-to place for fun and freedom.

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