The River Keeper

by Bethany Snyder

While it may seem like rivers and streams sweep along of their own accord, they often need help to stay healthy. In a time of rapid environmental change, it is more critical than ever that we protect this foundational element of life. Emily Alcott ’07 has dedicated her career to doing just that.

Emily Alcott ’07 spent her childhood wandering in the woods and splashing through streams in rural upstate New York. “We had a little creek behind our house and I’d spend a lot of time down there building and knocking down dams,” she says.

Water has always called to Alcott, from the days in that backyard creek to her time studying water quality for the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, from her graduate studies at Yale University to lazy afternoons rafting with her wife and their two children. “I’ve always found being on the water restorative and calming,” she says.

These days, Alcott is still pulling on her waders and walking out into the water, but now she’s doing so as the principal ecologist and fluvial geomorphologist at Inter-Fluve, an organization dedicated to the design, restoration and conservation of rivers, lakes and wetlands. Essentially, she is an expert in the way water interacts with and changes the landscape it flows across.

“Every river is a puzzle,” she says. “My job is to piece together why it looks the way it does and how I can put it on a more positive trajectory, whether that’s to help people in an urban environment get down to the water to experience it with their kids or to help endangered salmon in the northwest.”

More than 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams in the United States supply drinking water, irrigate crops, offer opportunities for recreation and provide habitats for fish and wildlife. “Rivers connect us all,” Alcott says. “They run through our urban places and feed our wild areas. They provide us clean drinking water and opportunities for recreation.”

An essential component of Alcott’s work is ensuring that people understand the importance of river restoration, which often means conveying complicated information to a wide range of audiences from large groups at public meetings in Portland or Toronto to ranchers in rural eastern Oregon. She credits her time at William Smith for fostering those critical communication skills.

“There are plenty of great researchers out there who can’t get their ideas across because they don’t know how to talk about them in a way that people can understand,” Alcott says. “At HWS, I learned how to do science well, but more importantly, I learned how to communicate it effectively.” After receiving her bachelor’s in biology, she went on to earn a master’s in water science, policy and management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She joined Inter-Fluve in 2010.

Whether she’s working on a small stream or a raging river, the message Alcott shares with her clients and the community is the same: “We all live on this planet and share it together, and we need clean air and clean drinking water to survive. We’re trying to leave this world and the environment better for future generations.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.