In the summer of 2003, when she and her husband wanted to move from Brooklyn, a friend with a business in Tarrytown invited Tracy Brown to the Philipse Manor Beach Club in Sleepy Hollow.
Brown was told to bring a bathing suit. She was eight months pregnant with her second child, and had her first child in tow. She ended up calling her husband from the beach club.
“I said ‘You’re never going to believe where I am right now,’” she recalled during a recent interview. “He said ‘Where?’ I said ‘I’m in the Hudson River.’ He said ‘Oh my God. Is that safe?’… And therein lies the nugget of the whole journey.”
The latest leg of that journey began Nov. 1, when Brown became president of Riverkeeper, the Ossining-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring the Hudson River and its tributaries. She is the first woman to lead the organization, which started as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association in 1966. Her predecessor, Paul Gallay, had led Riverkeeper since 2010.
“Returning to Riverkeeper, excited and inspired” was the subject of Brown’s email blast to the organization’s supporters on Nov. 6, at the end of her first week in office. That subject referred to the fact that she worked for Riverkeeper from 2007 to 2014, starting as the first director of communications, and then becoming a water quality advocate.
During those seven years, Brown helped develop Riverkeeper’s water quality program, which tests for fecal contamination. She also pushed for passage of the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law, which went into effect in 2013 and requires that sewage discharges be reported to state officials and to the public. That law also spurred the State to fund sewage infrastructure upgrades.
In 2014, Brown moved on to Save the Sound, a nonprofit with a similar mission to Riverkeeper, but with a focus on Long Island Sound. She established that organization’s office in Mamaroneck, as well as a water quality testing program, and departed as its regional director of water protection.
While at Save the Sound, Brown volunteered with Riverkeeper’s water quality program, collecting samples from the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, where she and her husband bought a home 18 years ago. In 2011, she co-founded the Peabody Preserve Outdoor Classroom, a 39-acre nature preserve owned by the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns.
Brown grew up in landlocked Ridgewood, N.J., though her family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. For the first 15 years of her career, her jobs ranged from serving as a gallery and development director for an artist cooperative to managing projects in the design and technology field.
Brown returned to Riverkeeper because “This waterway is just my home,” she said while seated along the Hudson at Pierson Park in Tarrytown. She decided to apply for the position of president while kayaking up the Pocantico, which flows into the Hudson.
“My attraction to the work is really rooted in my attraction to the river and just love for all the natural places and wanting to protect them and also to bring other people to them,” she explained.
Throughout its history, Riverkeeper has been known as an environmental protector, with its patrol boat and staff attorneys. In recent years, it pushed against proposals for additional commercial anchorages in the Hudson River and storm surge barriers around New York Harbor. It also pushed for closing the Indian Point nuclear plant in Buchanan, and for replacing that power with sources such as solar and wind.
In addition, Riverkeeper became involved in hands-on restoration. In the fall of 2020, it collaborated with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to remove two obsolete dams from Hudson River tributaries in Newburgh and Croton-on-Hudson. The dams had obstructed the flow of water as well as crabs and fish. One year later, Riverkeeper staff and volunteers planted shrubs and trees at the former dam site in Croton.
Riverkeeper needs to focus on water quantity as well as quality, according to Brown, who referred to nature-based infrastructure projects that counter the impacts of climate change. Restoring wetlands, she pointed out, helps prevent flooding.
“The demand is rapidly growing for projects that will help our living river withstand the extremes of a changing climate, while protecting communities from more frequent storms, rising waters, and increased heat,” Brown wrote in her Nov. 6 email blast.
Brown now leads a team that includes trained specialists, such as lawyers and scientists, as well as “problem-solving, passionate, natural advocates,” as she described herself and others. She referred to that mix as Riverkeeper’s “secret sauce.” In her email to supporters, she emphasized the need to “scale up” that staff “to meet this moment at the pace and the breadth that is required.”