Rick Gaskins, executive director and twice Riverkeeper with the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, is stepping down.
New executive director Emilee Syrewicze will take over April 15.
“Many people probably do not realize Catawba-Wateree River basin has become the poster child for many issues such as coal ash, storm water pollution, water shortages, sprawl and water planning,” she said.
Gaskins will remain with the organization through June 1, then spend a year in France where his wife will work in sales for a French company.
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“We’ll see but we’ll probably be back here,” ,” Gaskins said of plans past that year.
Gaskins came to the foundation in February 2008, following more than two decades as an environmental attorney. He served as foundation director and as Riverkeeper following Donna Lisenby’s departure and again between David Merryman’s and current Riverkeeper Sam Perkins.
“It was initially supposed to be a short-term thing,” Gaskins said. “The organization has grown to the point where we can hire a real executive director.”
Gaskins worked with the foundation as North and South Carolina settled a federal lawsuit over interbasin transfer and water allocation on the Catawba. There were fish tissue samplings that found carcinogens, leading to fish consumption advisories in both states. And there is an ongoing issue of coal ash storage and removal from sites along the Catawba River.
“We were really at the forefront of that issue,” Gaskins said.
The director is proud of other efforts, too. Volunteers were trained throughout the basin to recognize and report sediment control problems from construction sites. A youth kayaking program began soon after Gaskins arrived, and continues to grow.
“The dividends will be years down the road,” Gaskins said. “We’re getting youth out on the water who otherwise wouldn’t have a connection.”
Gaskins doesn’t see his biggest accomplishment as a single issue, but as a common approach to them all.
“What we did is we tried to change the organization to work more collectively with other groups and other entities,” he said.
An example came when the Carolinas agreed on a settlement once the interbasin transfer case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. A stipulation in the agreement is North Carolina cities requesting water from the Catawba could withdraw only after taking significant measures to conserve what they had and rely on other sources, Gaskins said.
“It turns out they haven’t needed it,” he said. “The conservation efforts have worked.”
The biggest challenge Gaskins faced was the economy, which shifted dramatically the year he arrived from rapid development requiring sedimentation monitoring to a near standstill. Plus, the down economy challenged the nonprofit foundation.
“The biggest surprise was the economy,” he said. “That really changed things for a while.”
The initial challenge for Syrewicze isn’t uncommon to nonprofits, Gaskins said. She’ll meet with volunteers and supporters, assuring them of the plan and vision for the group. Otherwise, Gaskins said, he’ll leave his replacement to set her own agenda.
“She’ll be great,” he said. “She’s a ball of energy.”
C.D. Collins, longtime covekeeper on Lake Wylie and volunteer with the foundation, said Syrewicze – also an environmental attorney – will provide stable and solid leadership.
“We think that she’ll be a real asset to our community,” Collins said.