Q&A with Marilyn and Jay Sarles

Our waterways are lifelines. Migrating birds follow the paths of river valleys. Seeds travel on currents. Floodwaters nurture soil with nutrients and silt so that plants can germinate and grow. Animals seek homes and one another along rivers — and so do people.

But as competition for fresh water grows, many of the aquatic threads that keep our watersheds intact and healthy are unraveling. Nature Conservancy supporters Marilyn and Jay Sarles have seen the consequences firsthand — while rafting down the Colorado River, canoeing the Taunton River, and touring dams and culverts on the Westfield and Connecticut Rivers.

Through these experiences, they’ve learned that people have an important choice to make about how we use water: We can be a force that weakens our rivers’ vital natural processes — or, we can be a force that keeps them working. spoke with the Sarles to find out how they got involved in freshwater conservation in Massachusetts and Colorado and what they hope the future will bring for water.
"Many people prefer projects in which you can see immediate results, but we go for the projects that lay the groundwork."

Marilyn Sarles

What ignited your interest in conservation?


Marilyn Sarles:
For me, it began with a very special trip. After Jay and I were married, we spent three weeks exploring National Parks in the American West: the Grand Tetons, Glacier, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. Years later, we returned to some of those parks and others with our young children to acquaint them with nature’s diversity and show them the beautiful places we had come to treasure.

Jay Sarles: The majesty of the parks is impossible to capture in words or photographs. We’re pleased that our children experienced it first-hand and developed a love of those wild spaces.

What is it about fresh water that first inspired you to take action?


Jay: Rivers are central to the ecosystems of many of the National Parks
, and as we traveled we learned more about the threats they face. On a rafting trip down the Colorado, for instance, we learned how Glen Canyon Dam affects the river’s ecology all the way downstream.

Marilyn: Reading Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert sparked our interest even more. The powerful Colorado has been so dammed and diverted that it’s barely a trickle when it reaches its mouth at the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

What drew you to The Nature Conservancy?


 We were searching for a practical and coalition-based project on the Colorado River when we learned about the Colorado River Basin project. The Conservancy’s approach there really resonated with us. It made sense to look for a holistic solution and to engage as many local interests as possible.

You also support the Conservancy’s freshwater work in Massachusetts. Why is it important to you to accomplish conservation in both places?


Learning about the problems on the Colorado got us thinking more about our freshwater systems here at home. In the West, people have long recognized that water is more valuable than oil. But in the Northeast, where we have plenty of rain, we don’t have the same daily reminders of water’s scarcity. There are different stresses in Massachusetts where rivers, streams and aquifers have been broken up by roads, dams and culverts that predated our concerns about ecosystem issues such as migratory fish routes, not to mention the long-term impact on water supply safety.

What types of projects do you support?


Many people prefer projects in which you can see immediate results, but we go for the projects that lay the groundwork. Because of my background in science, I know that the results of a study may not be available for years, but that information is often what is necessary to guide meaningful, lasting progress.

Sometimes, the less splashy projects are the ones that make the biggest difference. For instance, Alison Bowden's work to change road-stream crossing regulations is going to accomplish much more in the long-term than taking out one dam or culvert. There are tens of thousands of road crossings in Massachusetts. By dealing with them through requirements that transportation departments follow, we institutionalize the solution rather than pursuing a one-off negotiation that wouldn’t achieve anything at scale.

Marilyn, as a physician, how would you describe the link between fresh water and human health?


 People need water to survive, as do all living organisms. Globally, there are diseases such as cholera that can be prevented by simple access to fresh drinking water. Newer health concerns are the possible long-term effects of toxins in the industrial and pharmaceutical waste that ends up in our water supplies. We must also consider the ethical aspects of water rights and the balanced usage between various constituencies within an ecosystem: Is water a right or a commodity?

If you could look at the world 20 years from now and see how we have addressed threats to fresh water, what would you like to see?


Twenty years out, I’d like to see a balanced approach to development that consider the total cost to the environment over the long-term instead of the one-time costs to a river’s diversity. I’d also like to see concern about water cross more socioeconomic and political boundaries because down the road, water scarcity will affect all of us.

Marilyn: I’d like us to be able to work with rivers’ natural patterns. After all, rivers were here first, and many people were successful in working with their natural rhythms to develop communities and commerce. We’ve drifted away from that, and we need to get back to it.



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