ALBANY — Riverkeeper, a storied organization that began with a patrol boat to catch polluters on the Hudson River, has selected its first woman leader.
Tracy Brown, regional director of water protection at Save the Sound, will start as president and Hudson Riverkeeper at the nonprofit on Nov. 1. She’s a resident of Sleepy Hollow, one of Westchester County’s river towns. Brown takes over after the release of a new strategic plan for the organization and the departure of Paul Gallay, who led it for more than a decade.
She brings a new style of leadership to the organization founded in 1966 as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association.
“I’m more of that kind of ‘figure it out as you go along, find new strategies’ leader,” Brown said. “I think my style of leadership will be a little more open to some of this young energy and outside-of-the-box thinking that we really need to do to address the challenges that are piling up.”
Why it matters: Riverkeeper is a prominent advocacy group with a lengthy history of fighting to protect the Hudson River and surrounding watershed. It was instrumental in the agreement to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant and has also engaged in cleaning up wastewater flowing into the Hudson and pushing for more dredging to remove contaminants.
The organization’s new five-year plan, released in November 2020, highlights Riverkeeper’s need to raise more funds and a goal of building an endowment to provide more sustainable support. The plan also calls for prioritizing relationships with community groups, removing dams and restoring wildlife habitat, protecting drinking water and addressing climate change.
Riverkeeper’s public filings show a decline in contributions in the past few years, from $5 million in 2014 to $3.7 million in 2019, the most recent year available. Most of the group’s budget goes toward staff salaries. The organization has 28 employees.
Background: Brown was hired by Save the Sound seven years ago to stand up their New York office in Mamaroneck. She was tasked with building a water quality and pollution program for the organization. Prior to that, she developed Riverkeeper’s water quality monitoring program from 2009 to 2014 and worked on communications for the organization from 2007 to 2009.
Implementing projects: Brown said one of her priorities is to continue developing Riverkeeper’s ability to implement on-the-ground shoreline restoration and other green infrastructure. She noted the organization has done its first two dam removal projects over the past year.
“We really do need to get projects on the ground to manage these flash rain events to protect the living shorelines that are going to be stressed from rising water levels and warming water, and all those types of projects that are going to help put our communities on better footing to protect the habitats they have,” she said.
Brown said implementing these projects at scale would require Riverkeeper’s professional staff to build more relationships with other community groups around the region to leverage growing public interest and support for addressing climate impacts.
Brown is also looking froward to doing more wetland protection and restoration projects. She’s passionate about increasing public, legal access to beaches on the Hudson River, she said.
She moved to Sleepy Hollow from Brooklyn specifically because of a beach club there, which a friend took her to while she was house hunting.
“That’s one of the things that you know has really bonded me to the river and bonded my family to the river is being able to have that intimate relationship of being in it and you know I really wish that for everyone who wants it,” she said.
Inflection point: Brown worked with Gallay when she was at Riverkeeper before going to Save the Sound and was complimentary of his leadership and work at the organization. But she acknowledged there’s an “inflection point” happening as more young people become intensely involved in working on climate and environmental issues.
“I’m more of that self-taught person who came from a passion for the environment and a passion for the river who just kind of threw myself in — saying I want to work to protect clean water and protect the life in the rivers and let people have access to the river,” she said.
What’s next: Brown starts officially at Riverkeeper on Nov. 1. Save the Sound plans to conduct a search for a new regional director, she said.