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The Charleston Waterkeeper: Keeping it Real By Dan Dickison


yrus Buffum owes a small yet significant debt to Charleston, SC. But anyone concerned with settling accounts shouldn’t worry. He’s making plans to pay it back in a big way. Until recently, this newly minted college grad (class of 2006) was a full-time sailing instructor who raced sailboats in his spare time. Though he has called Charleston home for almost a third of his life, Buffum’s introduction to the Carolina Low Country came unexpectedly. At the age of just 13, when he began learning to sail on his home waters of Barnstable, MA, his instructors were collegiate sailors taking time off from the College of Charleston. Over the course of several summers, their tutelage not only cemented his interest in the sport, but also in emulating their choice for college. Buffum did wind up attending the College of Charleston, but his stint on the school’s renowned sailing team was short-lived because the work required of a physics major (with a math minor) proved hugely demanding. Nonetheless, he found a way to feed his passion for the sport by racing as often as possible with the local recreational fleet. And that experience fed another of his interests, a science-based appreciation for the natural environs. After graduating, Buffum explored the idea of attending graduate school, but his research led him instead to the writings of a well-known environmentalist—Robert Kennedy, Jr. And it was through the organization that Kennedy directed at the time, the Waterkeeper Alliance, that the young sailor found his calling. Buffum knew he wanted to knit his three principal passions together—his love of the water, his keen interest in science, and a yearning for social activism. The work of the Waterkeeper Alliance appeared to encompass all three. After nearly a year of diligent research and writing proposals, in mid-September, Buffum was approved by the organization as the Charleston Waterkeeper. “Waterkeepers,” he explained recently, “are full-time advocates for our waterways, monitoring and protecting the quality of the environment. We’re effectively the eyes and ears of the community,” he said, in regard to identifying problems with pollution. And though Buffum uses the first person plural to describe his work, there is little “we” about it—at least not in Charleston. He operates entirely on his own, working out of a small office nook in his downtown apartment. In fact, this Waterkeeper doesn’t even have a boat—yet. But what Buffum does have is the right intellectual bent 60

December 2008


Cyrus Buffum, Charleston Waterkeeper, on the marsh monitoring marsh life along the banks of the Cooper River on the Charleston peninsula.

and temperament, as well as abundant enthusiasm. He talks excitedly when describing the primary objectives for this initiative. “I’ve identified three essential areas that will make up the work. First, there’s the scientific side. We’ll be taking water samples and analyzing them. Second, there’s the educational and community involvement aspect. It’s important to educate citizens regarding their rights to clean waterways, so I’ll be going into primary and secondary schools and I’ll be partnering with other organizations striving to promote environmental stewardship and conservation, like the Low Country Environmental Education Program. We also want to give citizens the opportunity to voice their concerns, and that will happen through a citizen’s hotline, our Web site interaction and through openforum gatherings that we establish. And third, there’s the legal element. The Waterkeeper Alliance prides itself on enforcing environmental law, and a big part is enforcement based on the Clean Water Act of 1972.” Buffum explains that it’s not uncommon for waterkeepers to file suit against polluters, but also against government agencies that aren’t doing their given job of enforcing the law against those same polluters. What excites him most about this new venture is the opportunity to get people engaged. “There are 182 sanctioned Waterkeepers around the world. It’s actually the fastest growing environmental movement on the planet. And almost all the chapters are grassroots-style organizations that rely heavily on the involvement of citizens. When I drafted the plan for our chapter, I emphatically wanted this to operate as a bottom-up organization and focus on grass roots methodologies. From what I’ve seen of the other Waterkeeper organizations, the most successful ones are those that encourage citizens to take part, those that