Even as Lockdown Restrictions Loosen, Md. Riverkeepers Seek Essential Worker Status

Photo from ShoreRivers

When Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) issued a stay-at-home order at the end of March, recreational boaters and riverkeepers were obliged to follow the same set of restrictions.

Now that restrictions on commerce and travel are slowly being lifted in Maryland, riverkeepers, who perform a variety of duties and research to protect area waterways, will once again be able to ply their trade. But the riverkeepers believe that their water monitoring activities should be designated as an essential service.

As the weather warms up and swimming pools remain closed, more people will want to cool off in rivers, said Jesse Iliff, a riverkeeper with the South River Federation in Anne Arundel County. Riverkeepers provide the critical service of regularly testing bacterial samples in swimming areas, accessing the health of drinking water and publicizing whether or not it’s safe to be in contact with the water.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake is a coalition of 18 independent programs that serve as the voice, eyes and ears of the Chesapeake and coastal bays. They regularly collect vital data for state agencies and the public to understand the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Riverkeepers are often the first people to see and report pollution events or anyone in violation of the Clean Water Act.

As more government resources are used to address COVID-19, rapid response to pollution events and testing of recreational swimming areas have fallen entirely to non-profit organizations, Iliff said.

But if riverkeepers are not regarded as “essential,” then there will be no one to monitor the water during a lockdown. Not only will this disrupt data collection and water quality testing, but potential polluters will become emboldened if they know no one is watching the waterways, Illif said.

Riverkeepers don’t violate social distancing protocols. It is possible for riverkeepers to go out on the water alone to collect samples and monitor the water. Or they can wear proper protection equipment and remain at a safe distance on a boat if they are accompanied by a volunteer.

Volunteer engagement is a critical support system and donor base for these water monitoring nonprofit organizations. But volunteer activity and fundraising have gone significantly down for all environmental groups across the Chesapeake region during the pandemic, Illif said.

Proper water quality is an important public health issue, especially during a pandemic, said Angela Haren, senior attorney for Chesapeake Legal Alliance.

Riverkeepers in Maryland met virtually with officials from the Department of Natural Resources and Department of the Environment to express their concerns in May. Although the state agencies agreed that water quality monitoring was an essential service, they wanted to review safe field work protocols that ensured that riverkeepers would be in compliance with federal and state COVID-19 guidelines.

Soon after riverkeepers submitted their draft of safety protocols to the state for review, however, Hogan lifted the stay-at-home order. Riverkepeers no longer needed to wait for approval of their safety protocols in order to resume their water monitoring activities.

However, riverkeepers are still concerned about the fact that they are not regarded as essential.

“Now we are in this limbo where we want to have the designation as an essential worker because there is a chance that opening up measures will not work out like everyone hopes it will,” Iliff said.

 Although riverkeepers are currently allowed to monitor the water without safety plan approval or designation as essential, they still want the state to review the safety protocols that they had drafted in May. That way, in the event of another lockdown, riverkeepers do not have to go through the state bureaucracy again, but could more quickly get their designation as “essential” and get back on the water without too much disruption, Haren said.

State agencies said that they were not willing to deem riverkeepers as “essential” right now, since they cannot predict what a future lockdown would look like, Haren said.

“An essential classification is not necessary at this time, and we cannot speculate what future public health orders may involve or require,” said Gregg Bortz, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.

Elizabeth Shwe
Shwe covered California state politics during her internship at The Sacramento Bee. She is a 2020 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in political science. At Princeton she was a producer for WPRB 103.3 FM News & Culture section, the station’s only long form podcast-type program. Shwe also wrote for The Daily Princetonian, and tutored with the Petey Greene Program, which offers free tutoring to incarcerated people. Shwe is a Report for America corps member.