St. Lawrence River, USA - Lee Willbanks

My name is Lee Wilbanks. I've been on the job for 4 years as the river keeper for the Upper St. Lawrence and I grew up in the South and had great opportunities to be on and around water camping, swimming, canoeing, doing all sorts of stuff. But it's dawned on me and maybe largely because of the Watermark Project, it dawned on me that being the Riverkeeper being the voice for this River is really what I would consider my Watermark. It is an incredible privilege not just to be the Riverkeeper for this River but also to associate with Riverkeepers all over the world and freshwater advocates and all sorts of organizations who are doing really hard work. This water moves me but I find wherever I go, being part of the fresh water movement with others, although their water bodies are nowhere as near significant beautiful or awesome as mine, I can appreciate it and the group the camaraderie, the movement we are part of is tremendous.

We take responsibility from the headwaters where it starts at Lake Ontario in Kingston and Cape Vincent to the dams and the major construction works at Cornwall Ontario and Massena, New York. When you say you are a Riverkeeper at a border crossing sometimes causes them to stop and wonder what do so I get to explain what I do a lot. Save the River has been around for almost 40 years. We became a Waterkeeper in 2004 but because the name of the organization was Save the River that always gets an interesting response and people wonder where it's gone I went to school for my law degree and master's degree and started in ‘81 and it was a really different time back then. It was much easier to cross the border so it was sooner than that to discover my water body. Law school was the kind of place you wanted to escape from frequently and so I would go to Kingston and actually enjoy the Waterfront there. So it would probably have been even sooner, somewhere in ‘82 when I could get out of classes and get away from the grind I would go and find myself in one of the provincial parks along the St. Lawrence River on the Canadian side. Watching the water and the people in the boats go by, it’s the experience that connects us all. The calming effect of being near a waterbody. So it may be advanced age, that’s sort of the memory I would have. This is true, I love power boating but sailing or going out with people who are fishing is great. I don’t mind being unoccupied on the water and watching other people do work which I know for them I know fishing isn’t, but for me it is. So if I can feel the boat rock back and forth a bit and I can feel the breeze I am really happy. I can get on the water in a washtub if was all there was.

How I got to be a waterkeeper for me I think is really fortunate because it wasn't an occupation I necessarily knew existed and it wasn't a career path I could have picked out of the gazillion there were. But after a short period of gainful unemployment when my boss lost his reelection bid, this came open and I got to tell you it’s the greatest job ever. It’s not like I aimed for it and competed my way to get here, I fell into it and it fits. I don't think this is germane to the Watermark Project but I think one of the things it's hard as you know dealing with freshwater there are a lot of near-misses and not necessarily successes in what we do but we keep working at it. But getting Save the River to not just accept but to also own the Waterkeeper affiliation and really let me be the Riverkeeper very visibly and aggressively is I think one of my successes in the last 4 years. I think they appreciated it but we haven't really expanded it in the role I hope we have now.
 

Collector
Claire Lawson
Contributor
Lee Willbanks

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