Inspiring for clean water one paddle at a time

By Russell Bassett
Clean Water Digital Campaigner

Margo Pellegrino, a solo-paddler currently in the midst of an epic journey in her outrigger canoe, is inspiration personified.

Margo is a stay-at-home mother from Medford Lakes, N.J., who jokingly says she has a hard time staying home. She’s half way through a more than 1,500 mile watery adventure that started in New York and is scheduled to end in late July in Chicago. Dubbed “Big Apple to the Big Easy,” Margo plans to continue paddling down the Mississippi River from Chicago to New Orleans next summer.

What’s inspiring about Pellegrino isn’t just her willingness to take on the physical, mental and emotional challenges of paddling an average of 40-miles and 10-hours a day for months at a time. What’s really inspiring is her reasons for making the trek.

Pellegrino is a paddler with a purpose. She’s raising awareness of watershed issues that impact our drinking water, health, and way of life. Instead of doom and gloom, Margo’s message is one of hope — that the problems our waterways face can be fixed. Along with her public education efforts, Margo’s also picking up trash and conducting regular checks of water quality.

When I first read about Margo, I immediately knew I wanted to talk to her. Inspiration can be infectious, and I knew if even one person was as inspired by her story as I was, it was worth sharing. Margo is a long-time Environment New Jersey member and has worked shoulder to shoulder with us on several local environmental battles — from protecting the Pinelands to fighting a proposed gas pipeline. Through our mutual contact, Environment New Jersey’s Doug O’Malley, I was able to connect with Margo while she was making her way through the Erie Canal.

“Water is our most precious resource,” she said, breathing steady and heavy from the day’s paddle.  “Droughts are impacting California, there’s floods in Texas, Florida’s facing a water crisis, Lake Erie is having record algae blooms, and many of our nation’s streams are too polluted for swimming or to use as drinking water. We can’t ignore these problems, we’ve got to fix them, and they are fixable. Sometimes the solution is actually very simple. Natural resources can come back on their own if we just provide them the opportunity to do so.”

We’ve highlighted many of the water concerns Margo mentioned, including the Shelter from the Storm report that shows the importance of wetlands to flood prevention, Wasting Our Waterways report that documents which companies are dumping pollution in our waters, and a statement from Environment Ohio on Toledo drinking water contamination

The Big Apple to the Big Easy is a continuation of past paddles that Margo’s completed in previous summers, including a trek along the East Coast from Maine to Miami. For those paddles, she’s focused more ocean health, but now she’s concentrating on the connection between inland and ocean waters.

“A lot of our problems in the ocean are land-based,” she said. “My message is the same: We need clean water, we need to protect our waterways — not just for the environmental aspect, not just to save the fish — but also to save us humans.”

During her expeditions, Margo is able to talk with business owners who depend on clean water for their livelihood, including fishermen, breweries, and outdoor retailers.

“We celebrate and understand the importance of diversity in nature, and a very diverse economy is a strong economy,” she said. “When you have one or two larger companies that are allowed to pollute, all these businesses that depend on clean water downstream are affected.”

Margo’s a very vocal supporter of the Clean Water Rule, which restores Clean Water Act protections to our waterways and wetlands that were steadily eroded since 2001 by loopholes carved into the law by polluters and developers. These loopholes put the drinking water of 117 million Americans at risk to pollution. On May 27, just days after Margo began her journey, the Obama administration released the final Clean Water Rule, which restores those much-needed protections.

“People should tie the Clean Water Rule into a healthy lives and a healthy economy,” she said. “The rule is sorely needed, as it will help ensure the places we swim, fish and paddle are protected. Every day drives home the need for this as I paddle along the Canal where the greater threat is the pollution you don’t see.  

“So please, if you care about clean water, please sign a petition, email, make a phone call and thank the EPA for these common sense solutions which will go a long way to help stem the flow of water pollution. Clean water rules; dirty water sucks, and we need these Clean Water Rules!”

Well said, Margo.

The Clean Water Rule is currently under heavy attack. The U.S. House recently passed a bill to derail the rule, and on June 10, polluters won a committee vote on a similar bill in the Senate. Please add your name to the hundreds of thousands of Americans calling on Congress to support clean water.

We can’t all paddle 40 miles a day for months at a time, but we can all make a positive impact for our local watersheds.