For the first time in two years, the annual River Rally Conference was held in person in Washington D.C. between June 4-7, 2022. This event brings together river and watershed advocates from around the nation and is hosted by River Network, a long-time collaborative partner of both PEC and our affiliate, the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR). The staff of River Network collaborate across many disciplines, and PEC and POWR have benefited from their insight and expertise over the years to help strengthen our outreach and engagement of Pennsylvania’s community watershed organizations.
I was grateful to be able to attend this year and excited that two of my colleagues, Tali MacArthur and Diana Maher, were also able to experience Rally as first-time in-person attendees. Each River Rally is based on a theme commemorating water-based events. This year’s program was developed to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the US Clean Water Act. Appropriately, the location in our nation’s capital reflected the Rally theme.
River Rally celebrates and uplifts outstanding volunteers and professionals who work every day to protect and restore our nation’s unique rivers, creeks, and streams; advocate for equitable access to clean drinking water; and engage in local, state, and national water policy work. River Network, along with all Rally attendees, acknowledge exceptional leaders during the annual awards program, which recognizes both emerging leaders and those whose contributions spans decades. As demonstrated by their recognition of current and emerging leaders of color, River Network staff also advance the goal of strengthening diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the water conservation and advocacy movement. Rally is unique in that it is truly a space where everyone is made to feel welcome and where space and time are provided for boisterous networking and quiet reflection, learning innovative ideas, and just having fun meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends.
During our four days at Rally, PEC staff gained a deeper appreciation and understanding of federal water and river policy, land-use management for cleaner water, inclusive stakeholder engagement, community climate resilience, challenges and successes working with rural agricultural communities, and how philanthropy is responding to the emerging needs of minority-led and other small non-profit organizations.
Not only were PEC staff inspired by the efforts and outcomes of our fellow river and watershed colleagues, but we had the opportunity to share our work, our insights, and experiences from the many water resource projects and programs we help to convene and implement. In fact, PEC staff have presented on PEC-led initiatives at each River Rally event attended. This year I presented a session with Lia Mastropolo, Urban Stormwater Associate Director with American Rivers, another of PEC and POWR’s national collaborative partners. Our session explained how to use the stormwater permit process as a tool for restoring urban and suburban rivers. Although our presentation was on the final day of the event, we packed the room! Lia and I shared case studies from Pennsylvania including how we use our collaborative networks to provide advice and technical assistance to municipalities and watershed groups to support their clean water and stormwater management initiatives.
Conference sessions were organized around central themes including Climate Resilient Communities, Drinking Water, Strong Organizations and Leaders, Agricultural, and Policy and Advocacy. There were also a variety of field trips, from paddling the Anacostia River to tours of stream restoration sites. I participated in a group art project led by the Blue Art Collective that focused on how art, water, conservation, and social justice intersect. The work we created was displayed at the closing event and will remain a part of a permanent installment at the Aquatic Resources Education Center in Washington DC.
“We still have a long and challenging journey ahead of us as a nation to ensure that the benefits enshrined in the Clean Water Act are realized by all.”
I reached out to my colleagues for some of their reflections on River Rally. Tali MacArthur, PEC’s Watershed Program Manager, shared that one of her take-aways was that despite the impressive improvements to our nation’s water quality in the 50 years since the Clean Water Act was passed and amended, we still have a long and challenging journey ahead of us as a nation to ensure that these benefits are realized by all.
“There remain many communities without access to clean water; communities still marginalized by inequitable implementation of policies and programs; people who are still desperately fighting to be heard and recognized as their land is lost and their properties, health, and well-being are threatened by flooding and new massive infrastructure proposals,” said Tali.
“We must listen to, recognize, appreciate, celebrate, and support everyone who is working towards climate and water justice — from high level federal agency staff to the leaders of small understaffed, under-resourced non-profit organizations, to volunteer citizen champion advocates in our communities, and everyone in between. We will need the entire spectrum of backgrounds, experiences, and visions to ensure that 50 years from now we can celebrate a century of clean water successes and outcomes for all communities in a resilient and just nation.”
Diana, PEC’s Watershed Program Coordinator found her first River Rally to be inspiring and encouraging for future work.
“One thing that stood out to me at River Rally was the abundance of motivation, encouragement, and hope among attendees and presenters,” said Diana. “Environmental protection and advocacy can be daunting work, but it was great to see how many people were determined and inspired during the workshops. The work of the presenters was inspiring and necessary, and I am very glad I was able to attend to hear about the work and issues concerning our water resources from different parts of the country.”
PEC values our opportunities to share our programs and initiatives at national gatherings like this and is grateful to be able to participate in national conversations focused on river and water issues. We hope to be able to attend more regional and statewide events in the coming year bringing back innovative ideas and inspiration as we continue our work to help restore and protect Pennsylvania’s abundant water resources.