The modern "keeper" concept began on New York's Hudson River, where a coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen mobilized in 1966 to reclaim the Hudson from its polluters. They constructed a boat to patrol the River, hired the first full-time Hudson Riverkeeper in 1983, and began their historic protection efforts in the region.
In 1992, a growing network of keepers that were spawning on water bodies throughout the U.S. founded the National Alliance of River, Sound, and Bay keepers, renamed the Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999. The Alliance oversees the formation of new Waterkeeper programs, works on national issues that individual Waterkeeper programs hold in common, and serves as a meeting place for all the Waterkeepers to exchange information, strategy, and know-how. The Waterkeepers represent one of the fastest growing segments of the environmental movement today. With its focus on water quality, it has quickly become a unique grassroots force for environmental change nationally and internationally. Currently, the Alliance is composed of nearly 200 organizations.
A keeper is a nonprofit, citizen-based, water patrol organization whose special responsibility is to be the public advocate for a water body. Their visible presence on the water sends the message that the keeper is patrolling the waterway and dealing with the water pollution issues that are important to the community. Keepers are part investigator, scientist, lawyer, lobbyist, and public relations agent. A keeper's clients are all the users of the represented watershed. Keeper programs employ a variety of strategies to enforce environmental laws including conducting water quality monitoring, participating in coastal planning, attending board meetings, educating the public and devising solutions to water quality problems, and if necessary pursuing litigation as a final step to enforcement.
Each keeper program has grown from the needs of the local community and maintains a commitment to their community. The programs, although belonging to the international Waterkeeper Alliance, are each individual, self-sustaining programs with their own board of directors. This makes the keepers unique because they are tied to the specific needs of their community.