Riverkeeper President Tracy Brown Works to Clean the Hudson

All photos courtesy of Riverkeeper

At Riverkeeper, Tracy Brown leads the charge for a cleaner tomorrow in the Hudson Valley, starting with the mighty river that runs through it.

For nearly 60 years, there have been enormous efforts — starting with fishermen and, eventually, lawyers — to keep the Hudson River pollution-free and safe for wildlife and other recreational activities. Riverkeeper has been the organization behind a lot of these efforts, and Rivertowns resident Tracy Brown, who now serves as the nonprofit’s president, is committed to furthering the mission the founders had back in 1964. We recently sat down with Brown to discuss her role and the impact of a cleaner Hudson River.

The once highly polluted Hudson is healthier than it has been in decades due to the ongoing work of a nonprofit founded by local fishermen over half a century ago. Photo by Leah Rea, courtesy of Riverkeeper

Tell us about Riverkeeper, including your role, the mission, and how the mission came about.

I’m the president and Hudson riverkeeper. I actually just had my one-year anniversary. I did work at Riverkeeper prior: I was the water-quality advocate at Riverkeeper from 2007 to 2014. I also worked for Save the Sound, opening a New York office for Save the Sound and working on their water-quality program from 2014 to 2021. Then, Paul Gallay, the former president of Riverkeeper, was retiring, so I came back to fill his position. Riverkeeper is 56 years old. We were founded by a group of Hudson River fishermen who were concerned about the incredible pollution being dumped into the river at that time and how it was threatening their way of life. We’ve been fighting for more than half a century to turn the tide on all that pollution.

trash Riverkeeper
By Monica Dietrick

How exactly does your team keep the water clean?

We have a patrol boat and captain, and they are out on the river, following up on reports of problems and staying in touch with the community. They’re supported by other folks, who are in the office and take calls, answer questions, and identify potential problems that we could help with. We have a whole effort to work on marine debris, like our annual “Riverkeeper Sweep,” which happens every year in May. We get hundreds of people out throughout the watershed to do the physical cleaning of the river, which starts with cleaning the landscape adjacent to the river, because all that garbage comes from us. And we’re happy that, over the years, we are starting to see less garbage by volume. We’re complementing that with restoration projects, like planting native species and the removal of invasive species, shoreline restoration, and water-quality monitoring.

Tracy Brown Riverkeeper
By Leah Rae

“We’re very focused on preserving the life in the river and the life that depends on the life in the river.”
Tracy Brown, President and Hudson Riverkeeper

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What issues is Riverkeeper currently facing?

We’ve done a lot of work around water quality and reducing pollution. But now we have this whole new category of work that I call “water quantity,” which is being brought about by climate change — the combination of rising seas and rivers and increased precipitation. So, we’re really trying to bring as much climate-adaptation work to the communities as we can. We’re doing more work around storm water and flood planning while making sure people just don’t end up getting totally disconnected from their waterways with walls and gates.

Riverkeeper boat
By Leah Rae

What other roles does your organization play in sustainability?

Speaking on behalf of the wildlife and giving a voice to those lifeforms that don’t normally have a voice is central to our mission. We’re very focused on preserving the life in the river and the life that depends on the life in the river. It’s part of the whole web of life that humans also rely on. Our river is an estuary and a nursery for fish that populate the whole Eastern Seaboard. Without our system functioning, it would have hugely detrimental impacts to the other waterways it’s connected to.

What is the larger impact — other than cleaner drinking water — that a clean Hudson River has on New York and Westchester?

One huge benefit for Westchester in the whole state is that when we have cleaner water, we have more recreation. And that’s a quality-of-life bonus for everyone who lives here, but it also drives tourism. I personally swim in the Hudson. I live in a neighborhood that has one of the few remaining little neighborhood beaches; it’s one of five legal beaches on the whole 150-mile river. By comparison, Long Island Sound, which is also 150 miles long, has 216 beaches. So, over the years, the pollution has lost us this huge opportunity to do so much more with recreation. But, with the progress we’ve been making, cleaning the water and moving industry inland, that’s coming back. Clean water also means healthier fish. Right now, there’s a limit on how many fish you can eat from the Hudson. There are substantial-sized communities that do subsistence fishing on the Hudson, and they shouldn’t be worried about poisoning their families. They should be able to pull a fish out of the river, bring it home and feel safe — and we’re not there yet. But, if we can continue to make progress on achieving cleaner water, we could get there.

By Lisa Morales

Related: Light Pollution Seeps Its Way Through Westchester County

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