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When in Drought, Call a Kennedy

RFK Jr. talks water conservation, saving our oceans, and his 20-year history with San Diego Coastkeeper


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Photo by SD Coastkeeper

“It was a success story from the beginning,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of San Diego Coastkeeper’s humble start. The attorney and political activist is perhaps best known for his famous last name and swoon-worthy good looks, but to the local nonprofit that protects our coastal waters, he is an environmental hero. 

In 1995, San Diego Coastkeeper became the 15th organization founded under Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance. Today there are 266 keeper offshoots in 36 countries. 

San Diego Coastkeeper, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, has much to brag about. The city’s beachgoers, sailors, and fishermen enjoy significantly cleaner and safer waterways thanks in large part to the nonprofit, which organizes beach cleanups, educational seminars, and letter-writing campaigns to influence crucial policy decisions.

Kennedy remembers his first visit to San Diego, when Ken Moser was launching San Diego Coastkeeper. It was a two-man operation back then. Now there are seven full-time employees and more than 15,000 volunteers. 

“The first time I came out here they took me out fishing,” he recalls. “We caught a lot of albacore and yellowtail and ate sushi on the boat.” 

Eric Bowlby with RFK, Jr. at a SD Coastkeeper fundraiser, circa 1995.

Since then, Kennedy and the local watchdog group have won several high-profile victories to protect resources like that yellowtail and albacore, including a $1 billion settlement against Caltrans and a $70 million suit against water polluters in San Diego Bay. 

The former involved several keeper organizations in California and forced Caltrans to control storm runoff into coastal waters. The latter was a fight that took nearly 20 years to see a resolution. 

“I remember the first years, suing the shipyard in San Diego Bay,” Kennedy says of the battle. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the courts finally determined several organizations—including shipbuilding companies, the City of San Diego, and even the U.S. Navy—would be held responsible for the cleanup. 

“Those are the two achievements I am the most proud of.” 

Kennedy’s passion for the environment and the water can be traced back to growing up in a maritime environment in Massachusetts. After graduating from law school, he turned his focus toward the waterways and led the fight to clean up New York’s Hudson River. In recognition of his many efforts, Time magazine recently named him one of its “Heroes for the Planet.” 

Moving forward, San Diego Coastkeeper is looking to help offset the effects of global warming and California’s current drought. 

“It’s more important to change your politician than it is to change your lawn or your lightbulb.”

“The biggest issues on the West Coast are drought issues,” Kennedy says. He advocates for water conservation (the average San Diegan uses 127 gallons of water per day; the goal is to reduce that by 25 percent), fuel-efficient cars, and alternative energy sources. 

For the record, Kennedy practices what he preaches. He and his wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines, recently purchased a home in California. They are in the process of installing solar panels and looking into drought-tolerant landscaping. “I don’t water my lawn,” he says. “I’m letting it die.” 

But our responsibility as Californians goes beyond a few lifestyle decisions. “It’s more important to change your politician than it is to change your lawn or your lightbulb. We need to change through legislation and stigmatize what constitutes morally bad behavior.”

Though the prospect of trying to influence politics can be daunting at best, Kennedy continues: “There are genuine opportunities for people to get involved. I have a lot of politicians in my family. They count how many letters and emails come into their offices. If they get 50 or 60 letters, they pay attention to it, because they figure for every one person there are probably a thousand more that feel the same way.” And San Diego Coastkeeper can serve as a liaison. “The first thing I always tell people is to support an environmental group.” 

During the nonprofit’s annual Seaside Soiree, held on October 28 at the Bali Hai, Kennedy served as the keynote speaker and unveiled San Diego Coastkeeper’s three-year strategic plan to protect our local waters and alleviate the drought. The event raised nearly $80,000—a hearty sum indeed. But as Kennedy says—and all the members and volunteers of San Diego Coastkeeper undoubtedly concur—there is still much work to do: “We need to worry about what kind of California we are leaving for our kids.” 

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