For the love of plants and people
Meaghan Murphy is Ottawa Riverkeeper’s Riverwatch Coordinator. She is a wetlands ecologist and a strong advocate for grassroots stewardship programs like the Riverwatch Program.
Interview by Patricia Montreuil
Q. You’ve worked with other outreach programs, similar to the Riverwatcher Program. What have you learned that you can apply to your new position with Ottawa Riverkeeper?
MM. First and foremost, I learned that when we engage people, get them involved, they develop a relationship with the river. That is the key. They start to appreciate and understand all the issues – ecological, social, political, economic – that the river faces. And having a network of people who care for their river and work with Ottawa Riverkeeper to promote the sustainable use of the river and its resources within their communities, has a much greater impact than a government organization doing it. That’s what the Riverwatcher Program is all about.
First and foremost, I learned that when we engage people, get them involved, they develop a relationship with the river. That is the key.
Q. Do people generally recognize the importance of the Ottawa River in our daily lives?
MM. Many don’t. I was dismayed recently when I spoke to a local group of Grade 8 students who didn’t know that our drinking water comes from the river and that our waste goes into the river. The Ottawa River is the lifeblood of our community. It provides drinking water, supports fish, birds, other species and their habitats, and is a source of energy. It’s also a world-class destination for recreation and an important part of our culture and history. So yes, I think it is under-valued.
Q. What do you feel is the biggest threat to the Ottawa River?
MM. Let me start by saying that the Ottawa River is cleaner than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and cleaner than what most people think. It used to be considered a dumping ground for all our waste – most bodies of water were. Since then, we’ve realized the implications of that behavior. So I would say that the Ottawa River is relatively healthy; depends where and depends when. Having said that, there are still worrisome issues: in areas around cities, large amounts of sewage can enter the river, particularly after a heavy rainfall. Partly because of aging infrastructure, partly because of runoff where shorelines are stripped of protective vegetation that acts as a buffer zone. But there are issues all along this long river – it is 1271 km long from its headwaters to its confluence with the St. Lawrence River in Montreal. The gradual destruction of shoreline vegetation and wetlands; the destruction of habitats for fish, frogs or birds; runoff of pesticides and fertilizers into the river; all negatively impact the river’s health.
Q. So who are the Riverwatchers?
MM. Riverwatchers are people, individuals or groups of citizens, who live close to or on the river, and work with Ottawa Riverkeeper to advocate for the health of the river. Riverwatchers are well-rooted in their community and have a passion for the river. They become involved in ways that reflect their own interests, skills and availability. Riverwatchers tell us what’s happening in their community and what’s important to them. They are engaged citizens, talking to their neighbours and municipalities and being a voice for the river.
Q. It can’t always be easy. There must be conflicting priorities or opinions to deal with.
MM. Yes there are. Because it’s not only about clean water and healthy fish, but also about local economies, the landowners, the farmers. The Riverwatcher needs to listen and demonstrate sensitivity in order to navigate through the myriad of complex issues. It takes skill, a little political savvy. But let me add that it is a learning process for all of us. No one community is the same. The important thing is to have a network of support to work through issues together, to brainstorm, and ultimately find a goal that works for everyone.
Q. What do Riverwatchers do?
MM. Many become volunteer water quality monitors. Ottawa Riverkeeper provides them with a testing kit and trains them. They measure key water quality parameters like temperature, pH, nutrients and dissolved oxygen, and report their results back to Ottawa Riverkeeper. We then share this knowledge with the broader community. This helps build a long-term database for the river in order to track trends in water quality over time, identify problem areas, and educate the public about the river’s water quality. Observation is another key role: observing issues of concern like oil or sewage spills, shoreline erosion, wetland destruction or invasive species, or issues of interest like rare plant or animal sightings, or early or late ice melt. Some Riverwatchers focus primarily on community organization, education and engagement. They organize local meetings and events that promote river health; they organize a shore clean-up, an educational session about the river or even a paddle along the river to appreciate its beauty. When river issues are addressed at municipal meetings, Riverwatchers may attend and report back to Ottawa Riverkeeper on the local issues. I believe that for the Riverwatch Program to be a success, it needs to adapt to the needs of individual communities.
Q. What you call a grassroots stewardship program is what people also refer to as citizen science, or public participation in scientific research?
MM. Yes. It all starts with an individual who is interested or concerned by an issue. Others join in; together they learn and get access to more information. Numbers grow, communities become involved and their voice starts to be heard. People feel empowered. And then it becomes possible to get the government’s attention, whether local, provincial or federal. Unless we tell the government that these issues are important to us and that they – governments – are accountable to us, things won’t change.
Q. How do people reach you if they are interested in becoming a Riverwatcher?
MM. If an individual or an organization is interested in becoming a Riverwatcher, they should send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call me at 613-321-1120 or 1-888-9-KEEPER . We’re hoping to develop the Riverwatch Program on both the Ontario and Quebec sides of the river. Riverwatchers create a strong and clear voice for the Ottawa River and a strong sense of leadership in communities up and down the river.