CUMBERLAND — Brent Walls likes a car with good mileage, a reliable kayak and good pair of waders.
When you are responsible for monitoring the health of the entire Upper Potomac River Watershed from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to the river’s source near Thomas, West Virginia, you need the right tools for the job. The area totals 6,400 square miles of total watershed.
“It’s a lot of ground to cover,” said Walls. “I’m also licensed to operate a drone to look for violations occurring on the river. That has really helped me out doing this work. That’s what I do. I’m out there checking on things.”
One of three riverkeepers for the entire Potomac, Walls’ western portion includes the 90 miles of the North Branch of the Potomac River from the Fairfax Stone to where it joins the South Branch just below Oldtown.
“You have to have someone who speaks for the river,” said Walls. “That’s what a riverkeeper does.”
Walls, 48, lives in Williamsport. He was born and reared in Michigan.
“Every summer I would be outside in the water in the lakes and the rivers and loved it. I loved being outside, always have,” he said.
After high school he joined the U.S. Navy, where he spent seven years stationed in Washington State. His service include multiple long tours aboard ships which contained 5,000 service members.
“One of the defining moments of my life was .... on the ship, twice a day, they would slow down and they would ring a bell and everyone would gather their trash, put it in a bag, and we would line up and throw it (overboard),” said Walls. “The boat did not have room to hold the trash and we had to throw everything over ... cardboard, trash, plastics, old furniture, parts... all of it overboard.
“One time I was in line with a big bag waiting to throw it off the boat. The sun was setting and the ocean was calm. I saw a line of floating trash in the ocean. It was all floating there going off into the distance. Ever since then, I wanted to see change and help.”
After the Navy, Walls went to college and got a degree in environmental science. He landed a job in the field in Chestertown before becoming a riverkeeper in 2009.
Walls said the health of the river has come a long way.
“I think things are getting better on the North Branch and they have been getting better for a long time,” he said. “You are seeing more naturally spawned brown trout and other fish species where it was once considered dead. However, the bounce back has highlighted these little hotspots, these little pockets of pollution.”
Walls sympathizes with the loss of jobs from the Verso Corp. paper mill closing in Luke.
“It is unfortunate, the economic impact of this large of a facility shutting down because its not just the facility but all the jobs the industry created like truck drivers and things of that nature,” said Walls. “However, I think the towns of Luke and Westernport have an opportunity. This is a beautiful area ... gorgeous area. If they took advantage of the recreational opportunities here and add small cute shops, bed and breakfasts and really enhance the recreation opportunities like river access fishing and canoeing, they could probably begin to recoup that money and grow jobs in the recreational world. Because without the mill going we don’t have the smell and the truck traffic and we have a cleaner river here.”
Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.