Water Heroes

Aug 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Charles Wilkinson: The Law Man & Donna Frye: The Surf Warrior    Photo: Illustrations by Anthony Russo

Barry Dana: The River Voice

The Law Man
Colorado Supreme Court justice Gregory Hobbs calls CHARLES WILKINSON "the poet of western water laws." While the 63-year-old University of Colorado law professor does have a way with words—he wrote the lyrical conservation classics Fire on the Plateau and Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West—Wilkinson also carries a big policy stick. "He is a very powerful and weighty voice on every issue he gets involved in," says Simeon Herskovits, 39, an attorney with the Taos, New Mexico-based Western Environmental Law Center. Wilkinson was a key consultant on environmental issues for the Clinton administration and is now working on plans to scale back massive water-diversion projects in Colorado and the Southwest, and building support for demolishing dams, like the four behemoths on Washington State's Lower Snake River. Though President Bush ixnayed that idea, Wilkinson is still optimistic. "In water law, you can't think in four-year segments," he says. "Those dams are stupid, and they're going to come out." Spoken like a true poet.

The Surf Warrior
In the mid-1990s, San Diego-based water activist and surfboard-shop co-owner DONNA FRYE noticed many surfers complaining of strange symptoms, from rashes to eye infections to numbness in their limbs. Frye, 51, suspected that the problem was in the water. She was right: Storm drains, pesticide-treated crops, and leaking septic systems were all running straight into the ocean, in many cases at prime surf breaks. In 1995, she established Surfers Tired of Pollution (STOP) and began mapping the location of storm drains, lobbying in Washington for clean-water legislation, and working on local water policy. Her efforts have paid off. San Diego posted warning signs at drain locations and has cleaned up its act—86 percent of the city's 102 beaches were rated good to excellent by a local enviro group. In 2001, Frye was elected to the city council, where she's now waging a battle against a planned expansion of SeaWorld in Mission Bay and working to create the San Diego River Park. "The politics of pollution don't intimidate me at all," says Frye. "I just want to give the public back their ocean."

The Fighting Spirit
When Hudson Riverkeeper ALEX MATTHIESSEN, 39, isn't patrolling the Hudson in his motorboat to catch polluters in the act, he's filing lawsuits. In three years as executive director of the Garrison, New York-based Riverkeeper, dedicated to protecting the Hudson River watershed, Matthiessen, son of writer Peter Matthiessen, has transformed the group from a squad of 11 to a company of 22 staffers, prosecuting more than 130 cases against Hudson polluters annually. In February he helped win the largest Clean Water Act award ever when New York City coughed up a $5.7 million penalty for discharging sediment into Esopus Creek, part of a watershed that serves nine million people. Now he's trying to decommission the Indian Point nuclear facility, a potential terrorist target 22 miles north of Manhattan. But he claims his greatest contribution has been recruiting 15 local Hudson watchdog volunteers. "If we're going to change the way we think about water protection, everyone has to be part of the dialogue," he says. "It's going to take a citizens' army to do that."

The Mad Professor
When TYRONE HAYES, a 36-year-old biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, first started dating, he would take women out to the swamp to collect frogs. These days he's married and has a small army of eager students catching the critters from Montana to East Africa. "Amphibians' permeable skin makes them particularly susceptible to pollutants," says Hayes. "That's why I'm using them as a tool." Five years ago, he uncovered evidence suggesting that atrazine, the most widely used weed killer in the world, stunts development of male frogs' larynxes—disastrous for any young hopper who wants to call for a mate. Though the world's leading atrazine producer, Swiss chemical company Syngenta, commissioned Hayes's original study, it is now trying to counter his findings. Even so, Hayes has succeeded in drawing attention to the herbicide's potential dangers, including the possibility it could cause cancer in humans. He is currently conducting amphibian studies on the North Platte and Missouri rivers.

The River Voice
In the late 1980s, BARRY DANA, 44, a member of the Penobscot tribe of Maine, established an outdoor education center on an island in the Penobscot River to teach kids outdoor living skills. But when students began to develop headaches and rashes from air- and waterborne pollution discharged by the nearby Lincoln Pulp and Paper Mill, he was forced to move the camp. A decade later, Dana, now chief of the Penobscot Nation and a national champion whitewater canoeist, is leading a fight to stop paper mills from dumping a toxic cocktail of dioxins and PCBs into the river. "I want the mills to have zero discharge into the river," says Dana, "and I want them to lay claim to producing the most environmentally sound paper in the world." It hasn't been an easy fight, since the paper industry is a major political force in Maine. Dana's been threatened with jail time, cited with contempt of court, and thrust into a complex legal debate over tribal sovereignty. But for the chief, it's all just part of the job: protecting his people and their waters.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!