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Mending Our Waterways

Wading in rivers and working in laboratories, Sierra Club Water Sentinels keep pollution at bay

By Elisa Freeling

The water Cindi Jablonski is looking at appears fresh as Edenic dew, but she’s about to discover it’s full of fish-strangling phosphate. Too much of this nutrient, which can come from sewage-treatment plants and runoff, feeds oxygen-stealing algae, harming aquatic animals. Collected that day from an Illinois stream, the water is in a glass jar in a lab at McHenry County College, where Jablonski, a small-business owner, is studying to become a wildlife biologist. "I was the only girl on my block who liked bugs," she notes, "and I probably still am."

Her partner in titration is Dan Eickemeyer, who teaches classes on chemistry and society—air and water pollution, ozone holes—at the college. In the beaker-strewn lab, Jablonski and Eickemeyer pipette samples from jars into test tubes, add chemicals that will react with contaminants by turning a certain color, and measure the change with, of course, a colorimeter. As Jablonski’s sample turns blue, indicating phosphate, Eickemeyer records the data. "Saving the lives of more fish!" he says cheerily.

These days Jablonski and Eickemeyer spend a lot of their time with teachers, anglers, and amateur scientists. ("There aren’t a lot of other people I can talk to about bugs," Jablonski points out.) They’re all Sierra Club Water Sentinels: hundreds of volunteers in seven states documenting the status of waterways to get them cleaned up or help keep them clean. In Illinois, 108 Water Sentinels are testing for pollutants in 30 streams, 2 lakes, and a marsh, collecting data with which the Club’s Illinois Chapter can alert the public and press. Since the Sentinels began raising awareness, the state environmental agency has targeted 115 additional miles of river for cleanup.

When she’s not in the lab, Jablonski pulls on rubber waders to collect samples north of Chicago on Nippersink Creek, one of the cleanest streams around. For now, the Nippersink is alive with smallmouth bass and catfish, but in one of the state’s fastest-growing counties, unbridled development threatens its health.

Last year the Illinois Chapter helped establish rules that protect such stellar streams from degradation, which activists now hope to use to curb sprawl. As Jablonski and Eickemeyer hunker down, carefully pouring and shaking and timing and measuring, the results show even the Nippersink is imperfect in places: The sample that turned a lovely shade of periwinkle was collected from a site on the creek below both a golf course and a sewage-treatment plant that doesn’t filter out phosphates; samples from farther upstream were clear. The state’s environmental agency, however, has not set limits on the amounts of pollutants like phosphorus that sewage-treatment plants are allowed to dump, a policy the Sentinels are pushing to change.

"Water Sentinels are just ordinary folks trying to make a difference," says Fran Caffee, one of the first Club water monitors in Illinois. When the project began in 1996, she says, "our biggest goal was to encourage the public to take responsibility for our rivers." Though the EPA estimates

that 40 percent of America’s waters fail to meet federal cleanliness standards, President Bush’s 2003 budget reduces funds for water-quality monitoring nationwide. The future of our waterways may well depend on citizen scientists like the Water Sentinels.

Read more about the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program at

In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

Two hundred years ago, Meriwether Lewis was preparing for what would be the adventure of his life—and one of the greatest journeys in American history. The expedition he led with William Clark explored the then-uncharted West from 1804 to 1806 and returned with vastly expanded knowledge about the American landscape.

To commemorate Lewis and Clark’s achievement, as many as 25 million visitors are expected to retrace all or part of their famous route, from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, during the three-year bicentennial celebration that began in January. A new Sierra Club Book, Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail, can help you find the best parts to hike, bike, and kayak. (Anglers get their own guide to choice fishing spots online at The book is part of the Sierra Club’s Lewis and Clark Campaign, which honors the explorers’ legacy by working to preserve the region they taught us so much about.

To watch the Sierra Club’s new film, Wild America: Protecting the Lands Explored by Lewis and Clark, and learn more about exploring and restoring 50 million acres of wildlands in Lewis and Clark country, visit

To join the Sierra Club activist network, write to the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail Members receive a free subscription to the Planet bimonthly newsletter and Sierra Club Currents, a twice-weekly e-mail update.

Visit the Club’s Web site. To sign up for our other e-mail lists and forums, go to

Express Yourself
To make your voice count on environmental issues, write or call your elected officials at:

U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

U.S. Capitol Switchboard
(202) 224-3121

Contact President Bush at:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
Comment line (202) 456-1414
Fax (202) 456-2461


By Reed McManus

Manatee Mandate
Environmentalists had to collide with Interior secretary Gale Norton to get the Bush administration to make good on a pledge to keep motorboats from colliding with endangered Florida manatees. In January, a coalition of groups, including the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter, dropped its request for contempt-of-court charges against Norton after the agency unveiled specific plans to protect the beloved, slow-moving sea cows. The new rules will expand slow-speed zones in four Florida rivers and beef up law enforcement.

With Florida boat registrations soaring, manatee deaths hit a record high of 95 in 2002. Nevertheless, the motorboat industry points to relatively high numbers of Florida manatees as a reason to downgrade their state status from endangered to threatened, a decision that could be made later this year. If that happens, the manatee will retain its federal protections, but public support could weaken. "We need to stand against a very powerful boat lobby," says Helen Spivey, the Florida Chapter’s manatee-issues chair. "Without proper habitat, manatees will be doomed to live out their lives in zoos."

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