River steward: protection is 'everyone's effort'

Brattleboro resident Kathy Urffer stands on a bridge over the Connecticut River between Brattleboro and Hinsdale, N.H. Urffer has been hired as Connecticut River Conservancy's new river steward, replacing David Deen, who retired.

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BRATTLEBORO — Ask Kathy Urffer whether she has some big shoes to fill, and she'll laugh and say, "absolutely."

That's because the Brattleboro resident has been hired by Connecticut River Conservancy to replace David Deen, a highly regarded expert who retired after 19 years as a river steward for Vermont and New Hampshire.

But that challenge doesn't dampen Urffer's enthusiasm. She brings her own environmental experience to the steward job, and she also expects to work closely with many other with river advocates both within and outside the conservancy.

"There are all kinds of people doing work," Urffer said. "So it's really everyone's effort."

Deen is continuing his environmental advocacy through his state legislative work: The Westminster Democrat is Windham County's longest-serving current lawmaker and is chairman of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.

But Deen decided earlier this year to step away from his longtime job as a Connecticut River steward. At the time, conservancy Executive Director Andrew Fisk said Deen had been "a linchpin for our organization."

Deen's departure opened a door for Urffer, who had one thought when she saw the job posting: "I sort of had this feeling," she said. "Oh my God, there's my job."

That's in part because it had been a long time coming.

Before moving to Vermont, Urffer had lived in New York City and worked for Hackensack Riverkeeper in New Jersey. She was the organization's special projects manager and operations director, and she loved the work.

But she didn't love living in New York and was "looking really specifically to find a home — to move somewhere where I could stay."

That turned out to be southern Vermont.

Urffer brought her environmental interests to the Green Mountain State, and she recalls chatting with Deen soon after her arrival. That led to her getting involved in volunteer and consulting work, including service on the board of Southeastern Vermont Watershed Association and a stint as a commissioner for Windham Regional Commission.

Urffer's day job has been with Marlboro College's graduate school, where she worked as a registrar. But she always had an eye out for another environmental position, and she also earned a master's degree in natural resource management from Antioch University New England.

So she said she's excited to become one of two Vermont/New Hampshire river stewards for the Greenfield, Mass.-based Connecticut River Conservancy.

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For Fisk, the feeling is mutual.

In addition to possessing technical expertise, Urffer "understands the watershed communities well," Fisk said. "She knows what being an advocate means. And she has the personality and the disposition and the work habits to be another successful river steward."

Urffer joins the organization at a fortuitous time, as the conservancy is celebrating its 65th anniversary with a series of public events including a "source to sea" river journey that runs through the end of this month. The conservancy also recently rebranded itself, having formerly been known as Connecticut River Watershed Council.

Urffer said her new job title is wide-reaching.

"The idea of the steward is really like a caretaker the acknowledgement that I personally, and our organization, will take care of the river," Urffer said. "Day to day, that can mean many things."

There are restoration projects, for example — like a dam-removal effort in Vermont and New Hampshire for which the conservancy received funding last year.

There's also an educational component, as the conservancy works to help residents "understand how they impact the water, and understand how the water impacts them," Urffer said.

Additionally, there's a watchdog aspect to the job as the conservancy seeks to protect and improve water quality. Urffer said one of her top priorities will be participating in the federal relicensing process for hydroelectric dams in Vernon, Bellows Falls and Wilder.

"My main focus for the next two years will be understanding that process and trying to maximize the protection of the resource to the extent that we can," Urffer said.

She said the conservancy also continues to keep an eye on Vermont Yankee, as the idled Vernon nuclear plant on the banks of the Connecticut is up for sale.

Due to the policies of the Donald Trump administration, there's some uncertainty about environmental enforcement and federal funding for such work. While Urffer shares that concern, she also has faith in the strong foundation laid by state and local water-quality advocates.

"The reality is that a lot of environmental work is done on a local level," she said. "And the state of Vermont and the state of New Hampshire are engaged in protecting their resources."

As for the Connecticut River Conservancy, Urffer promised, "we're not going anywhere."

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.