This newsletter cracks open Columbia Riverkeeper’s playbook—the strategies and tactics we use to protect clean water and our climate. We divide our playbook into three overarching strategies: (1) build power, (2) enforce the law, and (3) inspire action.


How We Fight for Clean Water, Our Climate

This newsletter cracks open Columbia Riverkeeper’s playbook—the strategies and tactics we use to protect clean water and our climate. 

We divide our playbook into three overarching strategies:
comunidades meeting, sept. 26, 2018
1.) Build Power
2.) Enforce the Law
Conoce tu Columbia spring celebration at Kelley Point Park, Portland, OR, March 16, 2019, photo by Stan Hellman.
3.) Inspire Action

Before we explore the strategies, let’s talk about why. Why invest in community organizing? Or sue polluters? Can’t we all just get along? For nearly 20 years, Riverkeeper has been listening to and working in Columbia River communities. People are fed up with giant corporations threatening their communities. Our playbook is a direct response to the imbalance of power and problems that demand action now.

Imbalance of power

Corporate greed dominates our politics. Left to their own devices, corporations and the politicians they control elevate profits over public health and social justice. When fossil fuel giants and other polluters roll in, our cities and towns are at a huge disadvantage. The corporations have slick lobbyists, a squadron of attorneys, and consultants who give all the right answers. They do the rounds with local politicians. First they get everything lined up, then they announce the project to the public. Riverkeeper fights back. We are your environmental lawyers in the courtroom and your community organizers on the streets. As a Riverkeeper member, you can stand up for clean water. By joining together, we can even the playing field.

Time is of the essence

Here’s what we face: species are on the brink of a massive extinction, the federal government is paralyzed, and we have a climate denier in the White House hell-bent on eradicating our environmental laws and gutting the agencies that enforce them. According to the United Nations, only 11 years remain to avert climate catastrophe. Here on the Columbia, the water is too hot for long-term salmon survival, and warming every year. At some popular fishing spots, resident fish are unsafe to eat due to toxic pollution like mercury and cancer-causing PCBs. And groundwater plumes of nuclear waste flow slowly toward the Columbia River while Hanford cleanup languishes. Across the board, Columbia River communities face challenges that cannot wait another 50 or 100 years to solve.

Strategy One: Build Power
Portland Fossil Fuel hearing December 2018.

When community activists stand up to a threat, they grow stronger. People come together for a common cause. And when they win, the victories build power.

Riverkeeper works shoulder to shoulder with people in dozens of diverse communities. You are protecting the Columbia—whether fighting David-versus-Goliath battles against the fossil fuel industry or testing water quality to empower people to swim safely. From phone banking in small towns, to media trainings for activists, to strategic planning with our members, we help develop local leaders in the heat of high-stakes campaigns. Together, we are making a difference for clean water and strong salmon runs.

Riverkeeper strategically engages in urban areas like Portland, Vancouver, and Longview, as well as dozens of rural communities. We work with allies beyond environmental organizations. This includes frontline communities, farmers, fishers, rural landowners, labor unions, and health professionals. Read more

Strategy Two: Enforce the Law
The Dalles Dam, photo credit EPA
The Dalles Dam.

Since the birth of the Waterkeeper movement, Keepers have been enforcing the laws that keep our water clean and safe. Sadly, some corporate polluters ignore the rules of the game to make a quick buck—at the expense of everyone downstream. The Clean Water Act is an important law, but as former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan warned, “Enforcement of the law is what really counts.” So that’s what Riverkeeper does. When polluters illegally dump waste into the Columbia and its tributaries, we go to court to protect clean water.

Nowadays, Riverkeeper also goes to court to protect the public’s access to information and its right to be heard when our leaders make important choices. This means challenging government officials who withhold public information or who write environmental impact statements that hide the harm caused by fossil fuel exports.

Why do we fight so hard for government transparency and truthful environmental reviews? Critics say that we litigate to cause delay. In reality, Riverkeeper believes that facts still matter and every person— not just wealthy, well-connected corporations— deserves a voice. So we insist that governments release information, make decisions in public, and tell the truth about how their decisions affect our water and health.

Transparency is not only central to our democracy, it’s how Riverkeeper wins grassroots campaigns against powerful, well-funded fossil fuel corporations. When the truth comes out and government officials are accountable to real people, we get better results.

Litigation is not the only, or even the first, strategy in our playbook. A lawsuit usually won’t permanently stop a bad project. But without litigation to obtain important documents or undo illegal backroom deals, we lose our chance to run other, winning plays. Read more

Strategy Three: Inspire Action

How can we inspire people to take action in their community? On social media and email, we work hard to bring you stories about people using creative— and effective—strategies to win. And we aggressively pursue earned media—television and radio interviews, newspaper and magazine coverage, op-eds—to reach a broader audience and decision makers.

Conoce tu Columbia spring celebration at Kelley Point Park, Portland, OR, March 16, 2019, photo by Stan Hellman.
Conoce tu Columbia spring celebration at Kelley Point Park, Portland, OR, March 16, 2019, photo by Stan Hellman.

But our most important tactic, our bread-and-butter play, is providing opportunities for people to come together and be part of something bigger. This includes community events to connect with friends and neighbors like the annual Pete Seeger Sing-Along, Happy Hours for Habitat, and educational forums on the Hanford Nuclear Site cleanup, rising river temperatures, oil-by-rail, and other hot-button issues.

We encourage deeper involvement like participating in specific campaigns, engaging in leadership training, restoring habitat, or testing water quality. And, by donating money to Riverkeeper, our members are protecting the Columbia everyday. The following stories illustrate how Riverkeeper members are coming together on behalf of the Columbia. However you choose to engage, through your Riverkeeper membership, you are inspiring action. Read more

Riverkeeper’s playbook: The power of you

Playbooks are meaningless without people like you who transform strategy into action. We learn from your experience and knowledge. You are a key part of a critical movement to protect clean water and our climate. You are making a difference. Riverkeeper’s playbook is powered by you.


My name is Luis Estrada, I am 22 years old and live in Hood River, Oregon. I have been volunteering with Columbia Riverkeeper for about three years now. When I first started I was a year removed from graduating high school. I hadn’t gone to college due to being the first generation of my family to graduate so I didn’t know many of the opportunities I had at my disposal. Beginning to volunteer opened a lot of those doors for me since I was able to meet people who shared in a lot the struggles I went through. Being a DACA student volunteering has somewhat become vital to know about what’s going on around us. Ubaldo Hernández at Columbia Riverkeeper helped start Comunidades with members of the community to form a Latino environmental group. It’s through Comunidades that I have been able to continue volunteering in something I am passionate about such as the environment. They have helped me find scholarships that I am able to apply to and helped me learn more about ORSAA [Oregon Student Aid Application] to continue my education. It is also because of them that I know what career path I want to take and I know now how I can successfully get there.

The Playbook Issue: How Columbia Riverkeeper is tackling corporate polluters, staving off fossil fuel giants, and inspiring people to fight for clean water.