Russian River has ally and advocate

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When paddlers muscle their way down the Russian River during the Great Russian River Race on May 7, they'll be paying silent tribute to Don McEnhill, a man who works tirelessly to keep the river wild.

Sure, McEnhill is the program director of Russian Riverkeeper, the group sponsoring the event. And yes, he has spent most of the past decade waging battles to protect the river ecosystem. But perhaps most important, McEnhill is a modern successor to the likes of John Muir and David Brower. He is a lover of nature, an outdoorsman who appreciates the river first-hand.

"In many ways, this river is my home," he said. "I can't imagine life here in Sonoma without it."

McEnhill, 48, who has spent most of his life along the Russian River, has earned the right to wax poetic.

He grew up in Lucas Valley in Marin County and spent summers along the river at a family cabin on Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg. Later, after nine years in Texas, McEnhill returned to Sonoma County and fell in love with the waterway all over again, volunteering with an organization then known as Friends of the Russian River.

That organization <HY0>morphed </HY>into Russian Riverkeeper in 2001 and McEnhill assumed the new and customized roles of "riverkeeper," (peripatetic) program director and full-time advocate.

He has gone to battle over in-stream gravel mining and riverside vineyard development and has tried to raise awareness about the impact of urban storm runoff.

Perhaps the biggest victory came in 2007, when McEnhill and his colleagues exposed and stopped the daily discharge of 250,000 gallons of toxic processed water from the Syar Industries gravel plant.

"What makes the job challenging is that there are 100 different things affecting the health of a river," he said. "If it's not one thing, it's another, and someone has to stay on top of them all."

Most recently McEnhill has become passionate about raising awareness about storm runoff. His spiel: When it rains, anything on driveways — from metals to petroleum products to pesticides and herbicides — ends up in creeks. His plea: We must be more aware of what we inadvertently leave on our driveways.

He's an avid biker (who performed well in Levi Leipheimer's GranFondo last year) and an inveterate river paddler.

A double-edged goal of the Great Russian River Race next month is to both raise awareness and to get people out on the water. Proceeds from the event will benefit Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg.

"If people don't go to the river, they aren't going to care about it," he said. "We need to get them out."

Russian Riverkeeper is part of the Waterkeepers Alliance, a federation of similar nonprofits with 140 chapters worldwide.

In Sonoma County, the organization has mustered a number of allies in the nonprofit and government sectors.

John Short, a senior engineer on the Sonoma County Water Board, said he sees McEnhill as an educator, someone who is more interested in cooperatively working with people to seek environmental improvement than pursuing lawsuits.

"He is a strong advocate for the protection of water quality and the environment, but I am always impressed by his ability to convey his message in a reasonable, nonconfrontational manner," Short said. "This is true whether he is talking to government agencies, gravel miners or vineyard owners."

McEnhill himself notes that lawsuits are a last resort. He proudly declares that in nine years as head of Russian Riverkeeper, the organization has only been involved in seven or eight legal actions, far below the average for nonprofits of similar size and stature.

Above all else, this ability to negotiate is what McEnhill hopes will be his legacy.

The soft-spoken activist, who is married and the father of twin 9-year-olds, at one point had a goal to be an "anonymous person." Now, he said his job is to "find solutions."

He noted that even when his organization absolutely disagrees with someone else, disengagement on the issue is not an option.

"We sometimes get maligned by friends in the environmental community for talking to big wine companies, but if we want to work with them, we have to talk to them," McEnhill said. "I'm not under any illusion that I can change their business strategy, but if I can get them to think about some things they might not otherwise think about, everybody, including the river can win."

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