Profiles of River Restorers from Around the World

Monday, December 15, 2008

Featured River Restorers:

William Dvorak
Serena McClain
Leaf Hillman
Somkiat Singhakham
Mark Angelo

A Life of Rivers: William Dvorak

by Tim Kingston

Wil Dvorak, International Rivers' super volunteer
Wil Dvorak, International Rivers' super volunteer
Water and rivers have always been a part of Wil Dvorak's life. He was born three blocks from the river in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and built his first kayak at 13. When not busy at International Rivers putting together the River Revival Bulletin, Dvorak can be found camping and kayaking the western states alone, or with his grown daughter. He became interested in conservation and water issues early. "It was irritation, I guess, anger at the pollution of our river that set me on course for environmentalism for the rest of my life."

Dvorak says his work on the River Revival Bulletin gives him hope for the future. "I'm the good-news guy most of the time!" he says with a grin. "Its focus on the positive restoration of water systems around the world is very uplifting and hopeful in a world full of negative environmental news." He has been working on that good news for 5-6 years now, making him a veteran volunteer for International Rivers.

Dvorak is 69 but you would never guess it from his appearance - or activity level. He has the build and bearing of a marathon runner, combined with the weathered appearance of a man who has spent most his life outdoors. Even his unruly mustache and tousled grey hair jammed under a baseball cap looks like it is dying to be outdoors.

Dvorak has been in California since 1965. "I guess my love of clear streams sent me west," he says. After 30 years as an engineer and surveyor in the San Francisco Bay Area, retirement rolled around. "I had more time to volunteer and my daughter had grown up, I looked up [International Rivers] and they needed a volunteer and they took me in." And maybe there was something else that attracted him to International Rivers.

"I remember a vivid experience in Carmel when I hiked up the Carmel River and came upon the face of a dam. There was a fish ladder and huge steelhead trout going up it, but the fish ladder was poorly constructed and the fish could jump out. They would jump over the side and fall on the rocks below and get stranded. I would put them back in the stream to rescue them," said Dvorak. "It seemed cruel for humans to deprive the fish of their habitat."

And now Dvorak is continuing that rescue mission with his work on International Rivers' River Revival Bulletin, for many more years we hope!

Inspired by Free Rivers: Serena McClain

Serena McClain of American Rivers
Serena McClain of American Rivers
Serena McClain was tooling along at a public relations agency when one day she realized she just couldn't work in a corporate setting any longer. She had ideals and values that were all being shoved aside in the name of paying clients and billable hours. Now, as an Associate Director of the River Restoration Program in American Rivers' Washington, DC, office, Serena is inspired daily by the work of her colleagues and the people whose lives they impact. Attending a public meeting where a grandfather gives an impassioned plea to be able to take his grandson fishing much as he used to do is a vast improvement, she says, from lobbying on behalf of insurance companies.

"I was personally inspired by the Rivers for Life gathering in Thailand in 2003, where we listened to personal testimonials from people all over the world fighting dams. Those stories make me question what right I have to ever give up hope," she says.

The majority of Serena's work has been national in scope, focusing more on communicating the broader messages of the dam removal movement, and developing tools that will help communities succeed in their restoration projects. Serena measures achievement by the cumulative impact of the whole. And all told, the picture is definitely positive: dam removal is now a more widely accepted tool in restoring rivers, and states all across the country are removing dams.

"Standing on the banks of a river as I watch the water pouring through a breached dam inspires me to work so that I can witness that freedom again and again," says Serena.

At the individual project level, Serena tries to find out what motivates individuals interested in pursuing a dam removal. By tapping into the passions and drive of that one activist or agency employee or dam owner who wants to make a difference, she finds she can better help them focus their campaign.  

"I've learned to accept that there is always going to be someone who disagrees with what I do or a project I'm working on, and the reasoning behind their opposition might defy logic. I have to be okay with that because I'm not going to win over everybody. I am better served focusing on what I can change and how I can help the greater project and community."

Given the current global economic situation, Serena believes it will be increasingly important to build multifaceted campaigns that talk about the multiple benefits of dam removal. Stressing the pressure of aging infrastructure and making a strong economic argument, including project lifecycle estimates, can help make the case for continued river restoration activities, she says.

"Continuing to invest in unsustainable technologies and practices isn't a smart use of limited resources. We should work at making communities more resilient and look to forward-thinking solutions to get them there. In the end, dams will be the solution in very few cases."

Born to the River: Leaf Hillman Fights for the Klamath

Leaf Hillman, member of the Karuk Tribe, fights for the Klamath River's restoration
Leaf Hillman, member of the Karuk Tribe, fights for the Klamath River's restoration
Leaf Hillman did not choose to get involved in the campaign to restore the Klamath River. He was born, raised, and still lives in the ancestral Karuk village of Kotiphiruk on the Klamath. His earliest childhood memories are of hunting, fishing, and gathering the natural bounty which surrounded him. He is a ceremonial leader and hereditary owner of the sacred white deerskin dance. He is a practitioner of traditional Karuk culture and language, and an advocate of traditional environmental stewardship and management practices.

"This is why I say my involvement in this work was not a choice: fighting for my people and the river is something I do, it's the only life I have ever known. It's not something I can shut off, like it's five o'clock and time to go home now."

As a young man, Leaf adopted the dreams of his mentors, the restoration and revival of ancient ceremonies, religious practices, and spiritual belief system. He was taught that these are the foundations upon which Karuk people must live to be successful in life. "Without them we will vanish from the face of the earth," he says. The Karuk people survived overt genocidal policies of the 1800s, only to have their religious ceremonies and cultural practices outlawed. Then their children were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to government schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their religion. "In spite of these seemingly insurmountable burdens, today you will find Karuk people still practicing their ancient ceremonies and religious rituals, having restored and revived our ceremonies that were given to us by the creator at the beginning of time," says Leaf.

"Now, as a result of our hard work, our strong beliefs, and our aggressive campaigning, people all around the world are aware of the issues with Mr. [Warren] Buffett's Klamath River dams, and are offering to assist with this struggle. It is fair to say that I also draw inspiration from my ancestors, by reminding myself of what they were able to overcome. Taking on the richest man on the planet is not something that intimidates me, it actually drives me harder."

Leaf notes that throughout time the Karuk have been known as "fix the world" people, for their ardent and stubborn adherence to the conduct of annual world renewal ceremonies.

"We believe that all of the non-human spirit people, the rocks, trees, air, water, fishes and animals are our close relatives, as are all the human spirit people on this earth. Taking care of the fish is just as natural to us as taking care of our children and elders, it is our responsibility."

Thai Fisher Never Gives Up Hope: Somkiat Singhakham

Thongcharoen Srihatham is a veteran of the campaign to remove Pak Mun Dam in Thailand
Thongcharoen Srihatham is a veteran of the campaign to remove Pak Mun Dam in Thailand
"Were there still plenty of fishes in the river, all my children would have been better educated and had a decent job to do," says 57-year-old fisherman Somkiat Singhakham, a veteran of the campaign to remove Pak Mun Dam in Thailand.

"Por Somkiat" ("Por" means father, a term of respect in Thailand) has lived most of his life in a village along the Mun River. A farmer and fisherman, he described how things have changed since construction on the Pak Mun Dam started in 1992.

He said that villagers have been fighting for over 15 years for justice, but the majority of the affected villagers have still not been properly compensated for what they have lost.

Por Somkiat is just one of more than 20,000 villagers affected by the Pak Mun Dam. Completed in 1994, the dam was highly controversial from the start because of its impacts on the rich fisheries of the Mun River, the largest tributary of the Mekong. Between 1990 and 1997, there was intense opposition to the dam by thousands of people living along the Mun River. Some, like Por Somkiat, have continued the struggle even today

He described the various stages of the villagers' fight, starting with compensation claims for flooded farmland at the start of the project, followed by their work to get compensation for loss of fisheries livelihood, allocation of new farmland, and finally to permanently open the dam gates and restore the Mun River fisheries. The villagers have had incremental victories along the way, but successive Thai governments have often reneged on their commitments. For example, in 2002, after a long campaign, the Thai government agreed to open the gates of the dam for four months per year during the rainy season to allow for fish migration, but in recent years the Thai government has not complied with this agreement. Nevertheless, the villagers' struggles have helped widen the understanding of dams' impacts throughout Thailand, and the Thai government has admitted that it would be difficult to build a new dam in Thailand because of the huge opposition to such projects.

Por Somkiat is a fisherman. He earned more than $440 monthly from Mun River fisheries before the dam. He is struggling now on merely $30 a month - not even enough for daily food.  

His six children, ages 18 to 35, had only six years of formal schooling. Now that fishing is no longer a possibility, they had no other option but to become laborers in big cities.

"Everything was so much plentiful in the past. I caught lots of fishes. I sold them, exchanged them for food, and fermented them for future use. Now it's all gone. Fishes are not even enough for day-to-day eating," he said.

Por Somkiat says he is disappointed over the lack of concrete plans from the authorities to help heal the economic and emotional setbacks suffered by the affected villagers.  

"This is really a lifetime pain for all of us. We are swallowing our own flesh and blood for a living every day. I hope that this would never happen again." Now that the government is talking about building another hydropower project, Ban Kum Dam, on the mainstream of the Mekong on the Thai-Lao border, it seems he will never be able to rest in his work to protect rivers. He vows to fight on for the rights of the villagers.

Following the River of Life: Mark Angelo

Mark Angelo, founder of World Rivers Day
Mark Angelo, founder of World Rivers Day
Mark Angelo has been an avid paddler and fly fisher for more than four decades. His great affection for rivers and awareness of threats to them began when he was a young boy. During his younger years, Mark lived near the Los Angeles River, which had been fully encased in a concrete culvert, and even at an early age he realized this wasn't the way it was supposed to be. The damming of Glen Canyon in Arizona in the 1960s had an impact on him as well. He grew to appreciate the full magnitude of the event in later years as a paddler on the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado River.

Shortly after university, Mark moved to Vancouver to become part of the Fish and Wildlife Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He was happy to live in a place with a great river heritage and, ever since, has been an avid river advocate. He also serves as Rivers Chair for the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia, which works to conserve and enhance outdoor settings and resources in BC and to secure public access to them for recreation. Mark worked with both organizations to found BC Rivers Day, which is now World Rivers Day, held annually on the last Sunday in September; it has been celebrated by more than 30 countries since its inception in 2005.

"I've always believed that rivers are the arteries of our planet. They are lifelines in the truest sense and they have immense value from a natural, cultural and recreational perspective. While virtually everyone who has been active in the field of river conservation has experienced some lost battles, it's those times when a river might be saved or restored, or when you see some tangible signs of progress, that inspires you and keeps you going."

Mark emphasizes the importance of communication in river advocacy. "There's no question that communication and media relations are key. If we can make a case effectively, I do believe that most people want to see our rivers properly cared for. And once you can demonstrate public support and media interest, the chances of making some real progress is greatly improved," Mark says.

His hopes for the future run deep. "Having spent some time in the Varanasi, India with one of my river restoration heroes, Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra, it was wonderful to see the great reverence that locals and pilgrims had for the Ganges River, their country's holiest waterway. Yet, despite this, the Ganges, like so many rivers in different countries, is polluted and remains troubled in many ways. My hope is that we'll see a time when we not only revere rivers - but we also actually treat them in a way that's consistent with that devotion."