At just 23-years-old, Frank Chitwood, riverkeeper of the Coosa River, is officially the youngest riverkeeper in the world-but don’t let his young age fool you. As a native Alabamian, Chitwood has always been drawn to the state’s abundant outdoors and natural resources. He’s spent many years pursuing outdoor recreation and adventure along much of the 280 miles of river that stretches throughout the Coosa Valley. Active in his high school’s environmental club, Chitwood heightened his hands on experiences by learning the true extent of Alabama’s environmental issues and working to help educate others about them. Later, in college, he studied environmental analysis and policy, and upon returning to home, Chitwood seemed destined to fulfill the much needed position of Coosa Riverkeeper.
Coosa Riverkeeper, Inc. founded in 2010 by a group of area environmental leaders after the group American Rivers added it to its list of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country. It was at this point, Chitwood says, that he couldn’t live with himself if he just sat idly by while the Coosa continued to be destroyed. “The power of change comes from the grassroots,” he says. “It comes from hundreds of people staking a claim to their own piece of the Earth and protecting it so we can live in an increasingly better world.”
Coosa Riverkeeper, which is run as a citizen-based nonprofit organization, aims to protect and maintain the overall health of the Coosa River, so that it won’t compromise the health of those who drink from it, or fish and swim within it. As the river’s greatest advocate, the Coosa Riverkeeper works tirelessly to patrol the waterways, monitors polluters (and their pollution permits) and educate the public.
“On most of our waterways in America it’s not about the ‘single greatest threat’ anymore, it’s about the whole paradigm, the whole mindset of an entire society,” Chitwood says. His philosophy describes our waterways as kind of “lifeblood,” offering us “drinking water which we can’t live without, a significant portion of our diet, many valuable ecological services (including waste and sediment transport), recreation and transportation.” Chitwood believes the best way to educate people about the significance of protecting this “lifeblood” is by having them come and spend time on the river so they can see for themselves.
The Coosa Riverkeeper spends most of his time outdoors, and also enjoys being able to interact with a great many people. Yet, as riverkeeper, Chitwood’s role also involves fighting for government funding, and defending the Coosa from the dangerous hazards of pollutants (which often involve having to hack through political clout and big money). Despite these challenges, Chitwood says the hardest part of his job is having to answer “no” to the question, “is it safe for me to swim or fish where I live?”
The pollution damage done to the Coosa River may have been done at the hands of a few, yet, Chitwood argues that the Coosa is a “public trust” that belong to all of us. “We all have the responsibility to say something about polluters who are cutting corners and costs at the expense of our own health and the health of a common resource that belongs to all of us.” You can help Frank Chitwood protect our natural resources by supporting the Coosa Riverkeeper or other clean water groups. For more information, please visit, Coosa Riverkeeper or American Rivers.
Written by Kate Agliata