Earth Saver Interview: Steve Fleischli

STEVE FLEISCHLI assumed the role of President of Waterkeeper Alliance from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in June 2007. Mr. Kennedy now serves as Chairman of Waterkeeper Alliance.


Mr. Fleischli held the position of Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance from 2003 to 2007. During that time, he led the organization through enormous growth, including the expansion of the Waterkeeper grassroots model to 162 communities across six continents. Meanwhile, he oversaw an expanded organizational focus on national and international protection of water resources, ranging from citizen suits over concentrated animal feeding operations to international petitions over transboundary mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. He also co-founded Waterkeeper magazine.

Prior to joining the Alliance staff in 2003, Steve Fleischli served as the Executive Director and Baykeeper for the Santa Monica Baykeeper in Los Angeles. Among other things, he was instrumental in the passage of rules to eliminate summer beach closures in Santa Monica Bay and trash in Los Angeles-area rivers. Steve also sued the City of Los Angeles for its illegal discharges of raw sewage into local waters. This case – which the U.S. Department of Justice calls "one of the largest sewage cases in U.S. history" – resulted in a finding that the City violated federal laws more than 3,600 times and eventually led to a $2 billion settlement agreement for restoration of the city’s sewage infrastructure. He has also testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works regarding storm water pollution. Under his leadership, the Santa Monica Baykeeper received numerous awards for program successes including kelp habitat restoration and volunteer water quality monitoring. [more]

In addition, as a legal and policy analyst for Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, Steve helped settle a lawsuit against the United States Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to develop Total Maximum Daily Loads for over one hundred impaired waterways in the Los Angeles area. Authoring a comprehensive report on the lack of water quality enforcement by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, Steve also has helped draft and secure passage of numerous California state legislative measures, including AB 411 (statewide bathing water standards), AB 2019 (Storm Water Enforcement Act of 1998) and AB 1186 (storm water fee provisions).

Steve has served as an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and as President of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, a member of the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Safety Committee, a member of the Steering Committee for the City of Los Angeles’ Integrated Resources Plan and was a founding board member and is the current President of Energy Independence Now, a non-profit organization dedicated to a clean, renewable energy and transportation economy in California. He holds a law degree from UCLA School of Law and a Bachelor's Degree with honors from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with majors in Environmental, Population & Organismic Biology; Economics; and Environmental Conservation.

He is also the author of a novel about violence in American high schools, My Sweet Butterfly (2006).

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MR: What does Global Warming mean to you?

SF: I tend to think of global warming in terms of its impact on our water resources. I think it is critically important that we reduce our carbon emissions and accept responsibility for humanity's contribution to the problem. I also think that it is really important for people to understand that even if someone doesn't accept the strong science on the human contribution to the problem, climate change likely is going to happen in some form or another. Even if it is not caused by humans, the impacts are still going to be the same: Sea level rise. Drought in some places. Flooding in other places. Changes in drinking water supplies. Impacts to coral reefs. We have got to take this seriously and do everything we can to prevent these types of impacts to both water supply and water quality. And where greenhouse gas emission reductions are not enough, we have to start preparing our communities, our farmers, our fisheries, for a changing climate. This seem to be lost in the dialogue.

MR: What do you think most likely get in people’s way when it comes to being in action or embracing the green movement?

SF: There is a lot of information out there and it can be overwhelming at times. There is a lot to think about. I learn new things every day – and I get to do this for a living. Most people have enough to the think about with taking care of family, paying the bills, etc. Often there are also conflicting messages by those with a vested interest in a certain outcome. The role that government should play. The role business should play. People need choices to be clear and easy. People need to understand the economic benefits of good environmental policy and to understand that it is good for all of us in the long term. That is hard sometimes when the prospect of short term gain is dangled out there.

MR: What is your greatest fear about the state we are in now and the for the future?

SF: That people are losing hope and losing a sense of community and humanity. There is too much going on. No one wants to hear any more depressing news. All you want to do is come home and turn on the TV and drop out. The more mindless the show the better. Ignorance, apathy and greed are talking hold. Serious discussion is either too overwhelming or results in a battle of opinion. You are attacking me, so I am going to attack you. Civility has become a weakness. The talking heads on TV are the worst at this. They never find solutions or common ground. They just take their side and dig in their heels. They are there to entertain, not to inform. A friend of mine recently ask me why more people don't carpool together and he suggested that government should require people to carpool. I told him you can't force people to want to spend time with other people. A lot of people simply don't like other people. They just want to be left alone or keep to the the friends they already have. He is such a nice guy that that concept had never even occurred to him. But I see it everywhere. On TV. At the grocery store. On the freeway. It seems it is just part of the competitive American culture.

MR: What encourages you about the movement and what are you experiencing and witnessing as a result of the movement?

SF: All change is local and people can and do make a difference. We see it every day in the successes of the Waterkeeper movement with 181 local Waterkeepers working at a grassroots level to protect their waterways. Their successes are amazing – cleaning up their coastlines, saving their rivers and lakes. Really inspiring.

MR: How long have you been in this role as Waterkeeper?

SF: I have been part of the Waterkeeper movement for about 12 years. In 1996, I started out in the movement for a year as a volunteer lawyer with the San Francisco Baykeeper. After two years with Heal the Bay in Los Angeles, I became the Santa Monica Baykeeper in 1999. In 2003 I became the Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance. In 2007, I became President of the organization.

MR: Where did you grow up?

SF: Lincoln, Nebraska

MR: How old are you?

SF: Just turning 40.

MR: What kind of car do you drive?

SF: I just sold my pickup truck of eight years and am considering my next choice. A hydrogen fuel cell car seems ideal for me, once they are a little more affordable. Honda has a nice new model that a friend of mine drives. It is quite impressive. The dream is that the hydrogen fuel would be made from tap water and solar power (which they already can do). I am not a big fan of moral judgment when it comes to what kind of car someone drives or most environmental issues for that matter. We all live in glass houses because we all have some kind of impact with every breath we take. I think people should be able to drive the cars they need. To me, a Prius is not a substitute for a pickup truck and just isn't an option for everybody. But I think the auto industry needs to give us better choices to meet those needs. We already should have pickup trucks that get 50 miles to the gallon. We should have SUVs that do the same. Heck, we should have cars that get 100 mpg. For years, the U.S. auto industry has failed to see this and is now suffering in the marketplace because of it — and rightfully so. So much for their supposed support of the free market, right?

MR: What is your favorite Movie?

SF: Good Will Hunting and CRASH

MR: What books have inspired you?

SF: The Monkey Wrench Gang (and, really, anything by Edward Abbey). The Lorax. Catcher in the Rye. Walden. Civil Disobedience. Walking, also by Henry David Thoreau.

MR: What are a few things you would tell our readers to do …if you only do this one thing…..

SF: Get involved in your community. Get to know folks in your neighborhood and rally around an issue that means something to you all, even if it is not your top choice. We all share enough in common that we should be able to work together more at a local level.

MR: Where can you most likely be found on a Friday night?

SF: At my computer or out with family.

MR: Who are your eco hero’s?

SF: Living: Dr. Vandana Shiva; Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the 181 Waterkeepers around the world fighting for clean water. Deceased: Edward Abbey. Henry David Thoreau. Ken Saro Wiwa.

MR: Which of the Earth Savers Characters do you most identify with and why?

SF: Of course I have to say Olivia because of her connection to water.

MR: Which two characters do you think you would most be friends with and why?

SF: Jimi because he strikes me as a philosopher, and Alison because she sounds fun

MR: Are there any other questions you think I should ask that I have not?

SF: Nope.

MR: What would your final quote to our reader be….what does it mean to you?

SF: "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." By Edward Abbey. To me, it means that if you see an injustice, get involved. You don't have to be self righteous about it. Just do it. Don't sit by and feel bad about what is happening around you. We all have a choice in building a better world. And if you are smart enough to know the world is messed up, you are smart enough to do something about it. The tricky part, though, is not making it all worse in the process.

For more interviews by Monica, visit The Earth Savers Blog

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