State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Environmental Protection in a New Age

By Chandler Precht
PaulGallay high res photoThe Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development was delighted to host Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, on Friday, October 20th as part of our Fall 2017 Speaker Series. Gallay is a lawyer by trade and now works to protect the Hudson River as well as New York City drinking water supplies. In his talk, he gave an overview of his 30+ year fight to conserve natural resources as well as ways Riverkeeper is holding the government accountable. He also shed light on how to get involved in environmental preservation at this crucial time in history.

Riverkeeper, originally established as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association in 1966, has been a proponent of environmental protection since General Motors was stationed in Westchester County. At that time, a group of fishermen noticed that their fish smelled more like oil than food and decided to take action. Ever since, Riverkeeper’s mission—advocating for clean water—has not changed. Riverkeeper prides itself on creating infrastructure that will improve ecosystems, foster clean energy, emphasize the importance of water-related investments, and organize volunteers for shoreline cleanup.

Gallay stressed the importance of data-driven policy at Riverkeeper. Their goals include executing field research and tests often not completed enough by the government.

Between community scientists, partners, labs, and volunteers, Riverkeeper’s water quality data sample size has grown from 444 samples in 2008 to 4,800 samples already this year—a 980 percent increase in samples!

IMG_0177 This data is driving solutions. Riverkeeper has found that rain affects the Combined Sewer Overflow in NYC and other rivers in the state, leading to an increase in bacteria contamination, pharmaceuticals, microplastics and other harmful residues in untreated wastewater. Just this year, Riverkeeper used this data to advocate for and help pass the Water Infrastructure Investment Act, the Emerging Contaminants Protection Act, and the Clean Water Infrastructure Act. Aside from their water quality efforts, Riverkeeper has also been dedicated to reducing dependency on fossil fuels. The most recent campaign helped ban hydrofracking in New York and force the upcoming closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant.

Gallay also gave important tips to the undergraduate and graduate students in attendance; companies like Riverkeeper are now hiring specifically in the communications, outreach, science, and law fields, he said. He advised working with grassroots and environmental organizations because “the solution to pollution is NOT dilution, it is prevention!” Today, the ability to research, collect data, and have a passion for making change is important for catalyzing environmental activism, which is essential at this point globally.

Gallay will be teaching a sustainable development seminar in the spring named SDEV GU4050: US Water and Energy Policy, so be sure to check it out during this registration period.  

This event was part of the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development’s regularly scheduled Speaker Series for the fall semester. To see a list of upcoming speakers, please visit the Events section of our website. All undergraduate and graduate students at Columbia and affiliated schools are invited to attend.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that looks at sustainable development through the lens of the natural and social science systems. The program is offered through The Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health.

Chandler Precht is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.

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