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1. Katharine Fletcher: David, for how long have you been president of the Ottawa Riverkeeper organization?
A: David Spence: I was extremely pleased to learn that the Riverkeeper movement had arrived in our area in 2005 and began supporting Ottawa Riverkeeper (ORK) soon after. I was asked to join the board of directors in 2006 and was honoured to be elected president in September 2008.2. What is your special connection to the Ottawa River?
A: The year I was born my family acquired a cottage in Marshall’s Bay, between the mouth of the Mississippi and Madawaska rivers, just downstream from the town of Arnprior. For almost 60 years this very special place has been the focal point of my life and my spiritual refuge. The River was central to learning to swim, boat, camp and many other useful skills and never ceased to be the most enduring natural history teacher I’ve ever known; sometimes harsh but always able to nurture and stimulate an inquiring mind.3. As president, how do you think you can best contribute to the development of the organization and conservation of the river?
A: Since the mid eighties, I have been involved with an increasing number of volunteer organizations dedicated to protecting local wildlife and wild spaces. Experience has taught me that the best way to accomplish these goals is to work with all of the stakeholders and to try to understand reasons some may have for not doing things which would otherwise be in everyone’s best interests. I am a strong believer that education is crucial to changing negative behaviour patterns. I was also very fortunate to be able to raise significant funding for some of the groups I’d worked with. I hope to be able to extend all of these abilities to ORK over the course of my tenure.4. Many issues affect the Ottawa River, which falls under the jurisdiction of two provinces, not to mention a host of municipalities. What special challenges does this present?
A: Almost two thirds of the Ottawa River Watershed lies within the province of Quebec so the logistics of covering such a vast watershed from the city of Ottawa are daunting. We have been actively seeking strong voices along the Quebec side of the River and are currently working collaboratively with many individuals and a few organizations there. Our strategic plan sets a path that will help us work more effectively in Quebec and bring more interjurisdictional collaboration on projects and policies. For a small organization with a limited budget, it is a challenge to be a fully bilingual organization. Thanks to our staff and amazing volunteers we are able to work effectively in both provinces and offer a bilingual website and e-newsletter. Ultimately our goal is to communicate with and serve residents and communities in the watershed, regardless of their political boundaries.5. Last year raw sewage was dumped into the river. Since then, have rules and regulations been strengthened along the river?
A: The sewage spills highlighted the long and sad history of abusing one of our most precious resources. Neglect, mismanagement and poor enforcement of inherently powerful existing regulations, (whether federal, provincial or municipal) all point to the need to support an independent, science-based watchdog group such as Ottawa Riverkeeper to remain vigilant and active in order to better protect people and natural systems.6. What do you think are the three most pressing environmental issues affecting the Ottawa River?
A: My particular concerns include: 1) Municipal waste water treatment facilities which are grossly inadequate to handle modern pharmaceuticals, toxic chemicals and many other deleterious substances which are routinely discharged from over 40 locations into our River. 2) Agricultural run-off which includes soil, fertilizers, animal waste and a witch’s brew of herbicides and pesticides continues to be problematic. 3) Hardening natural shorelines through ill-advised “improvement projects” (i.e. concrete retaining walls, boat launches, etc) and inappropriate development along tributaries and their watersheds (i.e. Carp River/Kanata West) all reduce natural features such as wetlands and other vegetative buffer zones which are essential to wildlife and help to naturally cleanse water.7. What role can the public play to help safeguard the river?
A: It might be useful to think of the River as a 1,300 km long coal mine and we are all canaries with particular sensitivities to conditions which affect our health and well-being. When something occurs in or along the River which could jeopardize our relationship with it, appropriate authorities should be notified and the Ottawa Riverkeeper contacted to ensure compliance with regulations. We all have a stake in maintaining a healthy waterway and, when combined, our voice is loud and clear.8. What are your goals for the development of the organization during your tenure?
A: My personal goal is to try to establish the strongest possible financial footing for ORK in order to allow for increased growth and monitoring capability along the River. It’s an understatement to say that this is a difficult period for any not-for-profit environmental group and I am concerned that the economy will have a powerful effect on our potential to serve the needs of area communities. It is also more important than ever before for us to increase our membership in order to demonstrate to politicians and potential partners a broad base of public support for our on-going research and activities.9. What are your personal aspirations for the river are in 2009?
A: I would love to see increased public awareness of and appreciation for how much our daily lives depend upon a safe, clean, dependable source of fresh water whether for consumption, recreation, agriculture, industry or any of the many purposes for which we regularly need it. I think it is high time we began to celebrate this world-class, heritage river for all it has given us and will continue to provide, if we really take care of it.Katharine Fletcher: Thank-you, David, for granting this interview.
Remember to get involved – that’s the best way you can help conserve our precious watershed. Learn more by checking the Ottawa Riverkeeper website Events Calendar to find out what’s happening.Katharine Fletcher is a freelance journalist and author of several historical and ecological guides. Her latest book is Capital Rambles: Exploring the National Capital Region – find her guides at regional bookstores or at MEC.