Michael Herz

The Baykeeper

Recorded: April 8, 2014

Who cares about San Francisco Bay? They are the Baykeepers! Michael Herz founded the San Francisco Baykeeper 25 years ago to keep the San Francisco Bay clean by enforcing the Clean Water Act through citizen monitoring and reporting.

In the late 1980s, Dr. Michael Herz, a research scientist who had been studying and advocating on behalf of San Francisco Bay for the previous decade, was becoming increasingly alarmed. Environmental laws that were supposed to protect the Bay were not being enforced, and the Bay’s health was in serious decline.

Mike read a New Yorker article about the Hudson Riverkeeper, at that time a relatively new organization. Hudson Riverkeeper patrolled New York’s Hudson River by boat, using the citizen suit provision of the Clean Water act to bring legal cases against polluters, get fines levied, and obtain court settlements that protected wetlands.

“I was intrigued and excited,” Mike later recalled. “A ‘Keeper’ seemed a wonderful solution to the problems affecting our Bay.”

Mike tested the water by asking regulatory agencies, environmental organizations, and fish and wildlife groups whether a “Waterkeeper” program for San Francisco Bay made any sense. As he expected, the advocacy groups were very supportive. “But the big surprise was that the enforcement agencies also thought a Baykeeper could be very helpful to them and to the Bay,” Mike said.

The groups and agencies Mike surveyed admitted that no one was out on the Bay looking for pollution. Polluters were free to dump waste in the Bay with no fear of detection. Since the agencies charged with enforcing the law didn’t have the staff or budgets to take formal action, they supported the idea of the future Baykeeper organization having the capacity to file lawsuits to compel polluters to stop contaminating the Bay.

Using this survey, Mike raised funds from foundations and founded San Francisco Baykeeper, the fourth Waterkeeper organization in the US and the first on the West Coast. He hired an assistant, opened an office, and in April 1989, launched the Baykeeper program with a 26-foot motorized patrol boat.



Michael Herz:    I read about the Hudson River Keeper, and in the early 80s the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association had gotten very upset at the pollution of the Hudson River and the terrible things that were being done to the river, and so they decided to start this program called the Hudson River Keeper Program.  And the keeper was an organization based on having people who went out and patrolled the river looking for illegal discharges and people who were breaking environmental laws. And I thought, gee, what a great idea for San Francisco Bay.  So I thought that the River Keeper–Bay Keeper idea would work here.  So the Bay Keeper program has been pretty successful.

Michael Herz:    Here we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the San Francisco Bay Keeper.  We have brought somewhere between, I think 175 and 200 suits against–there has been some very, very fun ones.  We’ve sued the Army and the Navy for trying to get out of town without cleaning up their bases.  We sued Treasure Island, we had a suit with 363,000 individual violations of the Clean Water Act for discharges of various things at Treasure Island, and that was a fun one.

Michael Herz:    The secret weapon of the Keeper program is getting people involved. And the media are usually very sympathetic to the stories about pollution and the stories about what’s happening in the environment.  So we found with many of our Bay Keeper cases, that if we could write a press release and get it to the right media people, we would offer the media people a ride in the boat to go see the smoking gun and they would do a story. And the story would embarrass the hell out of the bureaucrat who was in charge of the agency.

Michael Herz:    The thing that makes me so proud of this Keeper network is that there are now over 200 of these Keeper programs all around the world.  You know it’s like having another kid.

Huey Johnson:    Yeah wonderful.

Michael Herz:    Our job, we gray beards in the business, is to inspire young people that even though there are a lot of odds against us in a lot of places, that there are still a lot of opportunities to do really important work.


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