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Paddling for Progress on Clean Water Laws

Margo Pellegrino is a paddling powerhouse, and she’s now preparing to canoe from Chicago to New Orleans to raise awareness about the dangers facing America’s waterways.

Margo Pellegrino recently made a solo journey from New York City to Chicago by canoe. She navigated through three of the five Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, above.

Margo Pellegrino recently made a solo journey from New York City to Chicago by canoe. She navigated through three of the five Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, above.

Daniel Novak/Shutterstock

Since 2007, Margo Pellegrino has paddled her outrigger canoe from Miami to Maine, Seattle to San Diego and Cape May to Montauk in order to educate the public about the threats facing rivers, lakes and oceans. Her tireless, one-woman quest to keep our waterways clean is motivated by her young son and daughter.

“I’m more than a little concerned about what we’re leaving behind for them,” Pellegrino says.

Margo Pellegrino
Margo Pellegrino on her journey from New York City to Chicago.
Photo courtesy of Margo Pellegrino

Pellegrino’s latest project is a paddling excursion of epic proportions. She recently finished the first leg of her solo journey from New York City to Chicago. She navigated three rivers, the Erie Canal and three of the five Great Lakes, testing water quality along the way. Pellegrino found that, from sewage in Lake Erie to infectious bacteria in Chesapeake Bay, “wherever you go there are trouble spots.”

At one port of call near Toledo, Ohio, Pellegrino began pulling her canoe to shore when a local photographer approached her. The woman warned, “You know, there’s beach closures here because of E. coli and you’re not supposed to be in the water.” But it was too late—Pellegrino was already knee-deep. The E. coli bloom was likely caused by fertilizer and sewer runoff.

Pellegrino collected equally harrowing tales from communities all along her route.

In August, Pellegrino will begin the second leg of her expedition, from Chicago to New Orleans. She’s in the process of raising money to fund her trip, and interested donors can contribute here. Pellegrino hopes her trip will both build awareness about the sorry state of our waterways and generate momentum for a stronger Clean Water Rule. She says the existing rule is a fine start, but she would like to see mandatory buffer zones for agriculture surrounding important water sources.

“We need our elected officials to realize that this is an important issue,” says Pellegrino. “There’s a bigger fan club for clean water than for any politician.”

The Waters of the U.S. blog series tells the stories of five courageous folks working to protect their beloved local waterways and to push the federal government to strengthen the EPA’s Clean Water Rule. Released in spring 2014, the rule is meant to bolster the 1972 Clean Water Act, which has been watered down over the years by concerted attacks from special interest groups. However, the Clean Water Rule exempts vital waterways, including some springs and desert washes, and Earthjustice—with help from grassroots water warriors—is fighting in courtrooms across the country to ensure that the rule is as protective as possible.

We're the lawyers for the environment, and the law is on our side.