In honor of our 25th Anniversary, Baykeeper presents the story of our founding in 1989.
In the late 1980s, Dr. Michael Herz, a research scientist who had been studying and advocating on behalf of San Francisco Bay for the previous decade, was becoming increasingly alarmed. Environmental laws that were supposed to protect the Bay were not being enforced, and the Bay’s health was in serious decline.
Mike read a New Yorker article about the Hudson Riverkeeper, at that time a relatively new organization. Hudson Riverkeeper patrolled New York’s Hudson River by boat, using the citizen suit provision of the Clean Water act to bring legal cases against polluters, get fines levied, and obtain court settlements that protected wetlands.
“I was intrigued and excited,” Mike later recalled. “A ‘Keeper’ seemed a wonderful solution to the problems affecting our Bay.”
Mike tested the water by asking regulatory agencies, environmental organizations, and fish and wildlife groups whether a “Waterkeeper” program for San Francisco Bay made any sense. As he expected, the advocacy groups were very supportive. “But the big surprise was that the enforcement agencies also thought a Baykeeper could be very helpful to them and to the Bay,” Mike said.
The groups and agencies Mike surveyed admitted that no one was out on the Bay looking for pollution. Polluters were free to dump waste in the Bay with no fear of detection. Since the agencies charged with enforcing the law didn’t have the staff or budgets to take formal action, they supported the idea of the future Baykeeper organization having the capacity to file lawsuits to compel polluters to stop contaminating the Bay.
Using this survey, Mike raised funds from foundations and founded San Francisco Baykeeper, the fourth Waterkeeper organization in the US and the first on the West Coast. He hired an assistant, opened an office, and in April 1989, launched the Baykeeper program with a 26-foot motorized patrol boat.
Baykeeper’s founding was covered by local and national newspapers, radio, and television. Literally overnight, residents began reporting pollution and suspicious incidents to Baykeeper. Nearly 50 people enrolled in the first volunteer training program, including kayakers, attorneys, chemists, and government employees. “It was one of the most committed and motivated groups I ever had the good fortune to work with,” Mike said.
Within a year, Baykeeper had logged over 150 pollution incidents and illegal activities, and recruited 250 more volunteers. “The agencies that initially supported our program became burdened by the many incident reports we brought them. Some started considering us a “pain in the butt,’” Mike recalled.
San Francisco Baykeeper soon became recognized for effectiveness in stopping pollution and creating preventive strategies. And so the young organization set out—on a mission to change the fate of San Francisco Bay and restore the Bay’s health for generations to come.
Photo by Bart Quigley