Charles River Watershed Association's Executive Director Bob Zimmerman is retiring this summer after nearly three decades at CRWA. An influential environmental leader, Bob was a catalyst in the transformation of the Charles River from a toxic waterway to the cleanest urban river in the country. In a conversation with CRWA member Nick King, Bob reflects on his accomplishments and the road ahead for CRWA.
- You’re retiring from CRWA after nearly 28 years. What’s changed during that time for environmental advocacy and specifically for CRWA?
- We got bigger as an organization. When I was hired in 1990, CRWA was a $100,000 a year organization. Today we have a $1.2 million budget with an equivalent number of employees. And we also moved from being traditional environmental advocates to being a research science and legal advocacy-driven organization.
- What prompted that shift?
Mostly a lack of clout. If the sign over the door says “make things better for the river,” and you get invited to meetings but nobody listens, that’s not helpful. At the same time there were lots of assumptions being made about what was wrong, what could be done about it and how much it might cost. But nobody really knew anything about the 80-mile-long river, and somebody had to take responsibility for how the river worked, where the pollution came from, and what could be done about it over time. So, I elected us.
What did you learn about the river?
- We set up a data collection system and started monitoring the river in 1994. And on the first pass the river met swimming standards for its entire length until Watertown, where there was an enormous spike of sewage. So we had just proved the naysayers wrong—the Charles was not polluted 100% of the time. Pretty instructive when you actually have the data to prove what you say. And that completely changed the nature of the conversation between us and everybody else.
What was the single best thing that CRWA accomplished during your tenure?
- The change in people’s appreciation of the river. When I got here the river was still “dirty water.” Now it’s not. It’s pretty much universally accepted as an urban gem.
- Does the river/watershed model of advocacy work?
- We certainly have introduced across the nation a science element to the work of river keepers and watershed associations. We use the science to solve problems, force change, make things better. I mean if you’re going to do science, change something.
- Is it more difficult to attract millennials than it was to attract an older generation first energized by the likes of Earth Day?
- Getting them in the door is not difficult. There’s an environmental ethic out there in colleges and high schools and kids know that climate change is their problem more than it’s our problem. But once they’re in the door, how do you keep them? We now have people on board who are developing a young professionals group, creating an alumnae group of interns and fellows, and increasing outreach to young people on social media and at events. I rely on them. CRWA in the grand scheme of things is a really well-kept secret, but that’s changing.
- What’s the biggest challenge facing CRWA going forward?
- CRWA’s work has led to a fairly revolutionary take on how to restore nature while anticipating and managing climate change. The hardest thing is overcoming the reluctance to change the way we build cities and towns. The bottom line is this: 20th Century approaches and engineering will not fare well with the realities of 21st Century climate. CRWA has identified a way out of the box we have created, but we must pursue it if we are to benefit from it.
- What is CRWA’s solution?
- CRWA is designing and promoting Community Water and Energy Resource Centers (CWERCs)—distributed waste-to-energy plants that are environmentally and financially sustainable. CWERCs will use wastewater and food scraps to produce electricity, heat, fertilizer and clean water, while helping communities adapt to climate change.
- How have your membership numbers changed?
- When I started it was about 600 and today membership has increased to over 1,500.Those members are loyal, active and represent the heart and soul of CRWA.
- The Run of the Charles is one of CRWA’s signature event. Has it been successful?
- It’s successful in introducing CRWA to paddlers passionate about the river. And it’s important. CRWA ultimately is both a research science and legal advocacy organization, but we’re also a grassroots organization. It helps us keep in close contact with a large contingent of people who live here.
- What’s the outlook for the future of CRWA?
- I think the outlook is quite good. CRWA has an active and strong board. We have worked hard over the past several years to break our dependence on government and foundation grants to support especially our research and design projects and move toward a large network of individual supporters. And we have moved more aggressively into the realm of outreach and education around natural restoration, managing climate, and the ways we think about water and water infrastructure. CRWA remains among the strongest and most creative regional environmental groups in the nation.
- What will you do next?
- There are a number of things we’ve developed here that I’m interested in and plan to remain active in. There are also places in the country that I’m intrigued with—Detroit comes to mind—the issues are so compelling that I’d really like to work in places like that. And who knows, maybe I’ll write the great environmental tome.