This country was founded on certain inalienable rights — ask anybody. They’ll probably rattle them off quickly — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Maybe they’ll throw in something about guns or voting. Unfortunately, the right to clean water is not a freedom that comes to mind.

“One of our idealistic goals is to make people look at it the same way, like the right to free speech, the right to gather, and freedom of religion,” says Cyrus Buffum, Charleston’s first Waterkeeper.

Led by Buffum, the local Waterkeepers Alliance focuses on education, advocacy, and monitoring to protect our waterways. A College of Charleston grad, Buffum started the local chapter a little more than a year ago, combining a love of sailing and the water with a deep interest in biology — both key to the alliance’s mission.

“I researched them to a good degree and learned that (founder) Bobby Kennedy Jr. wrote a book with the first Riverkeeper, John Cronin,” Buffum says. “I got the book and started reading it and got really fired up about what Waterkeeper is.”

Now with chapters on six continents, the Waterkeeper Alliance was founded in 1999. But its roots trace back to an organization that began on the banks of the Hudson River in 1966. Initiated by a band of blue-collar fishermen and veterans, the group saw their natural resource threatened by the waste of large companies. Outraged, they utilized a rarely referenced law, the 1888 Rivers and Harbors Act, to inflict the first penalty on an organization for pollution. Restitution was used to purchase a boat to patrol the waters.

That grassroots effort has inspired many protective programs, including the Waterkeepers.

“The beauty of the Waterkeeper program is empowering the public,” Buffum says.

The organization has kept its bottom-up approach to environmental protection over the years. By educating citizens on their rights and encouraging activism, Waterkeepers are putting thousands of eyes out on the waterways.

Waterkeepers assist residents in enforcing standards and prosecuting violators through provisions in federal environmental laws, including the landmark Water Pollution Control Act of the 1970s, which allows citizens to sue violators.

Yet, education and prosecution are only two prongs of the alliance’s strategy. The third is monitoring the waters, which Buffum calls “the real teeth” of their mission.

“One of our roles is to physically be out there on the waterways, and invite the public to be out there with us,” Buffum says.

The Charleston Waterkeeper has already conducted several sweeps in his short tenure. Most notably, Buffum paired with Charleston Expedition to clean Morris Island following the July 4th weekend.

“We took the patrol boat … and pulled about 1,000 pounds of trash off the beach,” he says.

Buffum posted a YouTube clip and got the attention of TV news crews. He’s now focusing on social networking opportunities to build momentum and advance the organization’s first membership drive and fundraiser.

A launch party is set for Thurs., Dec. 3, at 7 p.m. With Eye Level Art’s expansive warehouse at 2143 Heriot St. serving as the venue, there will be plenty of space for the inflatable video dome, art installations, and a touch tank filled with local marine life. The party will also include the Washington, D.C.-based DJs Live on Marz, refreshments from New Belgium Brewing Co., and a silent auction. Admission is $15 for members and $20 for non-members.

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