Taking the plunge: Alumni fight for healthy state waterways as riverkeepers
Two South Carolina alumni are quickly becoming environmental champions.
"I plan to take a community approach to protecting the rivers."
In December, Mark Bruce and Alan Mehrzad were named riverkeepers. Each is a full-time advocate for a body of water--Bruce works to protect the water quality of the Santee River, and Mehrzad watches over the Congaree.
Water was his first love
"I grew up on Lake Marion, which is a reservoir of the Santee River, and I’ve been on the water all my life," says Bruce, a 1994 computer science graduate who loves to waterski and fish.
After working in a number of industries for about 15 years, Bruce returned home to start his own information technology firm. Back on the shores of Lake Marion, he was shocked by a serious decline in the lake’s water quality.
"The number one reason I got involved is because water quality had deteriorated to such a high degree," he says. "The conservation group American Rivers named the Santee one of the country’s most endangered rivers in a report four years ago, and I wanted to help change that."
Natural and man-made challenges
Bruce went through a rigorous application process to be come the Santee riverkeeper.
"I sent a 23-page application to the Waterkeeper Alliance, which is the national sanctioning body for riverkeepers," he says. "They wanted me to outline what I thought to be the issues in the watershed and how I would address those issues."
Unfortunately, the challenges facing the Santee River are common, Bruce explains.
"Population growth in both metropolitan and rural areas has affected water quality, sometimes leading to high levels of arsenic or mercury. Land use is changing: there’s a lot of development, commercial and residential, which causes storm water run off. High levels of nutrients from fertilizers can cause problems.
"There are recreational issues, like trash left behind by people enjoying the water. Drought is a big issue, too," he says. "And the Santee has additional concerns, including a toxic waste dump that sits about 10 yards from Lake Marion."
Bruce’s plans for the Santee include water testing, advocacy work, outreach, and working closely with local, state, and regional agencies.
"I’ll also make presentations to high school students and college students," he says. "It’s important for them to know how to preserve water quality in the future."
Ensuring water quality
To become the first Congaree River riverkeeper, Mehrzad went through the same rigorous application process Bruce did. It was worth it.
"Being riverkeeper is a great gig," he says.
An avid fisherman and canoeist, Mehrzad began a love affair with Columbia’s rivers when he moved from Virginia to attend Carolina. He finished a degree in marine science in 2005 and then went to work in the private sector.
He returned to Carolina after a year to get a master’s degree in earth and environmental resource management. He’ll finish that degree in May.
Through it all, he’s kept an eye on the Congaree River.
"Last summer, a private utility allowed untreated sewage to leak into the Saluda and Congaree rivers," he says. "A lot of people called for a local riverkeeper, someone who could have identified the filth in the water, acted quickly to plug the source, and then monitored the water to make sure the leakage had stopped.
"I mentioned the situation to a friend who is a riverkeeper in Virginia, and he urged me to contact the national Waterkeeper Alliance and apply for the position. So I did."
A community approach
As riverkeeper, Mehrzad will be an advocate for a 90-mile stretch of the Congaree, Broad, and Saluda rivers. He will investigate tips on pollution, conduct water tests, check paper records, and celebrate the recreational value of the waterways.
Charged with a new and large task, both Mehrzad and Bruce are focusing on filing as non-profit organizations, recruiting boards of directors, and raising funds to fuel water testing and community programs.
"I plan to take a community approach to protecting the rivers," Mehrzad says. "I want this to benefit college kids who float down the river on Saturdays, fishermen who catch their families’ dinners in the river, and people who have homes on the river."
About the riverkeepers
- Mark Bruce, 1994 computer science graduate; Santee Riverkeeper
- Alan Mehrzad, 2005 marine science graduate; completing master's degree in earth and environmental resource management; Congaree Riverkeeper