The man who wants to be a watchdog wears blue tint shades, rubber waders and a ballcap that says "Riverkeeper."
Cyrus Buffum picks through debris on the waterline in Charleston Harbor — twisted fishing lines, broken beer bottles. He grunts to himself and kicks at the sharp edge of an old pipe sticking up. He's spent 20-30 hours per week for the past eight months singlehandedly laying the groundwork to become a Charleston Waterkeeper, the estuary's equivalent of a protector roaming in a boat looking for polluters, dumpers and anybody else who's dirtying the water.
He might soon get a badge.
The Waterkeeper Alliance meets in September to decide whether to approve Buffum as one of more than 120 independent watch groups on waterways across the world, a network that includes the Waccamaw and Catawba groups in South Carolina. That would give him the credential to form a nonprofit foundation and get down to business.
"It's a lot of work to put a non-profit in place. He's put the pieces together," said Dean Naujoks, former Neuse Riverkeeper in North Carolina, who will recommend Buffum to the alliance board and who is one of the members who will vote.
"Quite honestly I think the most important thing he has is his passion and commitment to make this work."
Buffum could fill what Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League called the gap in protecting Lowcountry water quality - eyes, ears and a nose on the water day and night, looking for problems and dealing with them.
To do it Buffum will have to ratchet up community involvement, recruit research and legal expertise and raise an estimated $100,000 to operate the first year. Oh, and buy a boat.
Buffum is 24 years old, a College of Charleston graduate with a physics degree and is a sailing teacher. What makes him think he can pull this off? He laughs a little at himself. Then he begins to talk a stream.
"I guess idealism, that youthful idealism that's still burning very hot," he said. "Just the responses I've gotten so far. The reality of it is there are so many entities invested in the water here. If you can't get the troops mobilized to protect our water quality, something is wrong."
Water and river keeper organizations are "that voice for the river," Naujoks said, guardians of and goaders for water quality. The alliance formed from a grassroots effort on the Hudson River in the 1980s. Pushed by keeper groups, New York, Georgia and California have taken unprecedented legal actions against polluters.
One of the first programs Buffum hopes to launch is a local version of "Muddy Waters," recruiting volunteers to watch for violations of construction and stormwater runoff.
Naujoks thinks Buffum can pull it off. Naujoks did it himself, launching a program whose watch on the eastern North Carolina river has helped re-write environmental laws in the state.
"People really care," he said, "once they are aware that there's really nobody out there making sure these polluters are held accountable."
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