Longtime Alabama Environmental Activist Honored With Award

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A longtime Alabama environmental advocate has been honored by the Global Waterkeeper Alliance.

John L. Wathen, who has served decades as the keeper of Hurricane Creek in Tuscaloosa County, has been named a recipient of the alliance’s Terry Backer Award.

Named for the first keeper of the Long Island Sound in New York, the award was created following Backer’s death in 2015 as a way to commemorate his legacy. The award honors fellow waterkeepers who embody Backer’s spirit and dedication to protecting everyone’s right to clean water.

“Receiving the Terry Backer award is one of the highlights of my career,” said Wathen, 68. “Terry’s been my friend and mentor to me since I came to the Waterkeeper Alliance many, many years ago. Terry’s taken me aside on more occasion than one and helped guide me to be a better advocate for this watershed.”

Backer was described as a “fearless warrior for Long Island Sound” and was a driving force behind the small group of advocates who ultimately created the Global Waterkeeper Alliance movement for clean water.

In accepting the award on June 11, Wathen said he found the watershed that would soon become his lifelong passion more than 45 years ago when he came to Tuscaloosa in 1976 to work for Parker Towing Co. and, while crossing the old wooden bridge on Holt Peterson Road, found Hurricane Creek.

“The creek was my first contact with nature around Tuscaloosa,” Wathen said. “One day I stopped and have been here ever since. It is a mystical place that captured my heart.”

His advocacy efforts began when he found it nearly devoid of marine life, having been choked out with mine waste, construction debris and runoff from what he described as “irresponsible road building.”

Upon joining the Waterkeeper Alliance and becoming the first – and, so far, only – Hurricane Creekkeeper in 2003, Wathen was able to access the legal resources alongside a network of likeminded advocates that he needed to bring about actual change.

“Terry Backer was certainly one of those,” Wathen said. “He was a mentor, he was my friend. He was a brother to me.”

Nominations for the Terry Backer Award come from fellow Waterkeeper Alliance members, with Wathen’s being put up by Mike Mullen of Troy, the alliance’s keeper of the Choctawhatchee River, which runs through southeast Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

“(Wathen) has achieved success much like Terry Backer did coming from a humble background, not having a science background, not an attorney and not a wealthy individual, John has done these this out of his love and respect for his creek …,” said Mullen’s nomination. “John has made these accomplishments without staff to assist him, he is the field guy who does patrols, the water monitoring, the filing of reports and all of the organizational work to plan, coordinate events, coordinate volunteers and conduct fundraising.

“He is truly the keeper of Hurricane Creek.”