Where in the World is Columbia Riverkeeper?

Follow Columbia Riverkeeper's Executive Director as He Takes the Waterkeeper Model Abroad

By Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director

March 17-19, 2017

2nd National River Summit 2017 in Nepal. March 17 to 19, Trishuli River bank. The Summit included a day of rafting, camping, and panel discussions and lectures by Nepali government officials, scientists, public interest lawyers, and student leaders.

March 16, 2017

Scenes of rural life in Nepal. Note the peaceful smiles.

Drupka nuns bike garage tent! They train on long rides down the mountain into Kathmandu.

March 16, 2017

Today we met many new people interested in being Waterkeeper Affiliates in Nepal. Really cool. The inauguration for the Nepal River Summit was this afternoon. Meetings and speeches do not make for very exciting photos. Tomorrow, we are off to the Trisuli River for a community rafting day and then the River Summit on the banks of the river. We're camping so I may not be able to share photos for a bit.

Sharon Kahn, International Director of Waterkeeper Alliance

Inauguration for the Nepal River Summit

Inauguration for the Nepal River Summit

Inauguration for the Nepal River Summit

March 15, 2017

We spend another day with the Drukpa nuns at Druk Amitabha Mountain. Christine Ellis from Waccamaw Riverkeeper led our training on more advanced water quality monitoring probes (the YSI probes like Columbia Riverkeeper uses). When the new residence hall is complete, there will be 700 nuns here. The nuns go on long bicycle and walking tours to show woman empowerment and work to protect the environment. The goal here is to equip the nuns with more information and data about water quality. Seven hundred nuns can be a powerful force to protect the environment! Waterkeeper Alliance brought equipment to leave with the nuns here, as well as in India and Bhutan. Waterkeeper’s International Director, Sharon Khan, and Asia Regional Coordinator, Min Zheng, are doing a fantastic job supporting local efforts to protect clean water around the world.

And we watched the Drukpa nuns practice Kung Fu! If these amazing women can work to protect clean water with the same strength and discipline as they approach Kung Fu, pollution better run and hide.

Christine Ellis from Waccamaw Riverkeeper led our training on more advanced water quality monitoring probes (the YSI probes like Columbia Riverkeeper uses).

Water Quality Monitoring

Brett teaching

Water Quality Montioring with Drukpa nuns.

Drukpa nuns practicing Kung Fu

Sharon Khan of Waterkeeper International introducing Brett.


March 14, 2017

We trained 150 nuns yesterday on basic water quality monitoring at Druk Amitabha Mountain. The Drukpa nuns have gained attention at the Kung Fu nuns because they are trained in Kung Fu for self-empowerment. They also mountain biked across Nepal, some learning to bike just weeks before leaving. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of one of the four lineages of Himalayan Buddhism, is also teaching the nuns the importance of protecting the environment. The nunnery sustained extensive damage during the 2015 earthquake and they are rebuilding the residence hall to house 700 nuns.

Here's a video of Brett interviewing the Kung Fu Nuns:

Spending the day at the nunnery was peaceful and rewarding. The nuns were joyous and full of laughter. They jumped up to take part in water quality sampling. Today we go back to Druk Amitabha Mountain to train the lead nuns with more sophisticated YSI sampling equipment (similar to what Columbia Riverkeeper uses), which we will leave at the nunnery for their use. Here are some photos below. If you don’t recognize me, I’m the tall guy.

Brett with Kung Fu Nuns

Brett with a nun.

Druk Buddha Statue

Group of Kung Fu Nuns, Brett is on the far right in the back.

Water Quality Training with Nuns and Brett.

Nuns at training.

The nuns were trained to install and maintain solar panels. They are installing an additional 60 MW to they don't have to rely on the inconsistent electricity grid.


By Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director
March 13, 2017

We spent a great morning with the Nepali Waterkeeper groups learning about the dams, mining, and pollution issues facing Nepal’s rivers. We also discussed plans for the upcoming National River Summit on March 16-19. I get to present on lessons learned from the Columbia River dam impacts. The Nepali Waterkeeper groups and partners are smart, passionate advocates. It’s been a joy to kick around ideas with them. Megh Ale, a David Brower-like figure for rivers in Nepal, has built an impressive team.

Brett and Megh

We visited Nepal’s most holy river, the Bagmati, and some incredible cultural sites in the afternoon. Hindus cremate relatives on the banks of the Bagmati and place the ashes into the holy water. I watched as a family carried a body shroud in red and yellow cloth down to the river and washed the feet. In a traditional ceremony, they built a funeral pyre from logs, placed the body on top, strung orange marigolds across the body, and lit a large fire. It was intense and very moving.


A man carrying wood for the pyre along the Bagmati. I obviously did not want to photograph the funeral.

A woman getting water along the Bagmati.

Sadly, in the aftermath of the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the funeral pyres burned non-stop.

The Bagmati River is also one of the nation’s most polluted rivers, featuring raw sewage, garbage, and other waste. There is a major effort in Kathmandu to clean up the river, including a weekly garbage cleanup that draws thousands of people each week.

Bagmati River

Solar panels at Temple by Stupa.

Here are some other sights from today:

Monkey eating the offerings at the Pashupatinath Hindu temple.

Woman and child near the temple.

Prayer flags at the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. Buddhist walk around the stupa clockwise as a devotional practice.

My traveling companions from Waterkeeper: Min Mzeng, Sharon Khan from Waterkeeper Alliance and Christine Ellis from the Waccamaw Riverkeeper in North Carolina.

Tomorrow off to teach water quality monitoring to the Kung Fu nuns.

By Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director
March 12, 2017

Flying into Kathmandu is incredible. The plane comes in low over ridges with villages perched on the edges. I could see the high Himalayan peaks jutting above big cumulus clouds. We dropped through the clouds and Kathmandu in all of its beauty and chaos came into focus.

On the hotel roof in Kathmandu.

Tonight I’m going to meet Megh Ale, a superstar conservation leader and President of the Nepal Rivers Conservation Trust. Megh also founded Ultimate Descents in 1991, Nepal’s premier whitewater rafting company. He's fighting to protect the Karnali River - one of Nepal's wildest rivers - from dam proposals. Megh helped create the five Waterkeeper organizations that we are going to work with over the next week. I’m very eager to meet them all.

Swayambhunath, a Buddhist temple, on the horizon at sunset. I hope to tour the temple soon.

Brett on a field expedition conducting research on climate change in Antarctica, circa 2000.

By Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director
March 9, 2017

I’m spending three weeks in Nepal this March to train Nepali Riverkeeper groups, give a talk on environmental laws at a River Summit, and teach Buddhist nuns to monitor water quality. I’ve always wanted to see the Himalayas, but the opportunity to work with local activists, help inform government officials, and hang out with nuns is truly incredible. The nuns, by the way, practice Kung Fu to promote female empowerment. This just keeps getting better.

Columbia Riverkeeper is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, the fastest-growing global movement for clean water. There are over 300 Waterkeeper organizations in 35 countries. Nepali activists, who are trying to protect the country’s free-flowing rivers and clean up pollution, are joining the movement. Waterkeeper invited me to Nepal because of Columbia Riverkeeper’s experience with dams and my background in climate science and water quality monitoring. I’m honored to share tools with our kindred spirits in Nepal and bring some lessons home.

During graduate school, I was offered the opportunity to continue my glacial research in the Himalayas. But I had just decided to attend law school instead of pursuing climate science further. I very reluctantly said no to Nepal and the glaciers and said yes to Portland and the law library. I am blessed to have the opportunity to see those glaciers nearly twenty years later, and to engage with amazing Nepali people working to protect free-flowing rivers.