Rivers and lakes supply the majority of the water we need in our daily lives, to produce the goods and services we rely upon, and to provide places for recreation and reflection. But these waters are in trouble. Nicole Silk, president of The River Network, spoke with Rachel’s Network members about the role of grassroots empowerment in driving large scale protection of our waterways, and answered these questions for us:
What are the biggest challenges we face in protecting rivers?
Over half of the waters of the U.S. cannot support healthy aquatic life or are stressed without adequate water – basically, we are pulling too much water out of rivers, blocking the flow of these waters, or returning water that is of poor quality.
We need to mobilize public engagement to demand both clean water and healthy, functioning rivers, and help water users, water managers, and water advocates overcome the complex legal, regulatory, and social framework surrounding each river. This complements targeted large investments by bigger NGOs, multiplying the impact of good ideas. No one organization can do it alone – it will take a collective effort at every river to raise awareness. This is not an impossible challenge, just one that takes grit and innovation.
If you could remove one obstacle that prevents us from implementing solutions, what would it be?
According to the needs assessment that we completed earlier this year with hundreds of organizations and thousands of people, the major obstacle is the lack of access to new ideas and innovations, followed by financial and capacity limitations.
This was a bit of a surprise when it surfaced in our data but gives River Network a clear mandate for how to focus its resources, drive more investment, and forge important partnerships. We can do much more to bring the best from academia, national NGOs, government, and industry to our community and elevate success within our ranks. We can build new financial vehicles for supporting living rivers.
How have your priorities changed since you started your work on water issues?
Early in my career in conservation, I was convinced that laws and regulations could have a transformative influence on our ability to achieve a secure and sustainable future for people and nature. That conviction had a profound impact on my decision to attend law school.
However, although I have seen progress on the policy front, the greatest gains for rivers have been at the local level, driven by people who transcend barriers and move toward practical solutions in collaboration with others. From landowners, conservation professionals, and engineers, to school teachers, scientists, and farmers, I have witnessed the power of spirit (and hard work) overcome sizable odds to make great gains at the local level, progress that no one thought was possible.
What are you most proud of in your work?
I am proud that I found a passion that has centered most of my professional life that I’ve been able to build and inspire extraordinary efforts within my teams. I’ve been able to shift thinking about what a different water future will require. I am also proud of providing a positive example for my kids.
What women environmentalist inspires you most?
The women environmentalists who know how to make hard decisions with integrity and intention, set clear expectations, and stay long enough to have a profound effect are those who inspire me most. They are visionary leaders by all measures, and the fact that they are women makes them even more impressive. I say this now that I realize how challenging it remains for women because of the many demands on their time and attention at work and at home. Rebecca Wodder, American River’s former CEO, is such a leader. She is strategic, thoughtful, smart, and sincere. She has made an indelible mark on the conservation movement and on taking care of our rivers.
Nicole Silk is president of River Network, a network of more than 2,000 state, regional, and local grassroots organizations working to protect our most vital natural resource — water. Before joining River Network in 2014, she helped The Nature Conservancy expand its freshwater conservation efforts and influence around the world, contributed to conservation innovations in the US and Costa Rica, and guided whitewater adventures from California to Siberia.