NEW ALBANY, Ind. — When Jason Flickner was a kid, he built a dam on the creek behind his grandparents’ house causing it to flood a neighbor’s basement.
When he tells the story now — at 45 and living in the same house — he says his dam was a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The story captures Flickner’s current situation: a life interwoven with the waters of southern Indiana and the house his grandfather built in this Ohio River town, intimate knowledge of one of the nation’s premier environmental laws, and a good plan going a little sideways.
Flickner is the executive director of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, a nonprofit he started in 2017 to be the voice for the stretch of the Ohio that runs 300 miles from roughly Louisville, Kentucky, to Evansville, Indiana. He’s a career environmental advocate who doesn’t see many opportunities in that line of work in this part of the country.
He’s starting to think it’s time to walk away, but he feels bound to New Albany. Both his grandparents have died; the future of the estate is uncertain, and Flickner doesn’t want to let it go.
“I feel like not only am I walking away from the family homestead, I’m walking away from the fight that I’ve been putting up for 20 years,” Flickner said from his sitting room, lit through large windows covered in nose prints from his dogs, Willow and Murphy.
To him, building the nonprofit to where it can pay him $40,000 a year is his best chance to keep the house his grandfather built while fighting for a river that he feels called to protect from industrial and agricultural pollution. “I don’t want to give that up,” he said.
Dan Canon, a New Albany civil rights attorney and all-around progressive advocate, said Flickner has earned his environmental bonafides.
“As far as people that are really slugging it out for the conservation movement in southern Indiana, he really is at the top of the pyramid,” Canon said. “He would know more than probably anybody from here to Indianapolis about what that effort looks like.”
And he’s at home here. After saying goodbye to the dogs, Flickner drove through New Albany, smoke from his Winston cigarette rolling out the open window, giving a nonstop history lesson of the area: The glaciers that formed the hills (called “knobs”) folded up against the city’s west side, the exposed fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio, the buffalo trace where millions of American bison once passed through while migrating between Kentucky and Illinois. This is the land that he knows.
But he’s broke.
He started that day with an overdraft notice on his personal checking account. The organization hasn’t raised enough to pay him a salary. He’s paying bills through side work and an inheritance. He said the organization had around $1,000 in mid-September, which had dwindled to $50 by late October. The way he sees it, he may need to head to the coast where environmental work is more plentiful unless his board agrees to help make a $100,000 fundraising push over the next year.
“We’re to that ‘do or die’ moment,” he said.
He’s not alone. Other red state Waterkeeper leaders — whose groups are all members of the national Waterkeeper Alliance — say they’re also struggling to grow. Progressive grassroots organizing isn’t impossible, but getting local buy-in can be tough. Waterkeeper’s mission of “holding polluters accountable” can mean suing companies in a state where “Indiana is open for business” is a catchphrase for elected officials. And in Flickner’s case, the Ohio River is so big and has been so polluted for so long, even like-minded people aren’t convinced they can make a difference, he said.
But they can, Flickner said, by paying him to pull the levers built into the Clean Water Act.
Flickner was born in West Lafayette in north central Indiana and has had a bedroom in his grandparents’ house since fourth grade. His grandfather was an outdoorsman who raised beagle hounds, ran rabbits on horseback, hunted mushrooms and fished. He’d wake Flickner up on Saturdays at 4 a.m. to net minnows for the day’s fishing trip.
Flickner absorbed his grandfather’s outdoor ethos, preferring time in nature as long as he can remember. He’d go on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University with a specialization from its School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a well-ranked program in environmental policy.
His first advocacy job was canvassing, where he learned to talk quickly and connect with people.
It also gave him an early lesson in what it means to be a progressive activist in a conservative region. In 1998 in rural Indiana, a local sheriff who received complaints picked up Flickner and his canvassing partner and drove them to the county line. They nearly missed their van ride home.
“He actually took us to the jail before he took us to the county line” even though they weren’t breaking any laws, Flickner said. “He was big and he was mean and he had his hand on his gun the whole time.”
The canvasser in him still comes out. One mid-October afternoon, Flickner accepted a free bottle of water from a small group of young Christians spreading the word of God on the Big Four Bridge that connects the neighboring city of Jeffersonville with Louisville across the river. He delivered a five-minute spiel on Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, handed out his business card and invited the missionaries to volunteer all before they could ask if he knew Jesus. (“I know Jesus very well,” he said.)
He had been part of on-and-off talks with Waterkeeper Alliance, the national nonprofit that licenses local groups like Fickner’s, for years to start a Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper group, but the timing was never right. In 2017, having just left a full-time job based in Indianapolis and looking for a way to stay in New Albany with his aging mother in their family home, he said it was a necessity.
This isn’t just a job for the sake of a job: The Ohio River is in trouble. Flickner often points out it is the most polluted river in the United States, a distinction the Ohio earned from reports of industrial discharge data that show it taking in, pound for pound, more commercial waste than the Mississippi River.
The waste includes nutrients and toxic heavy metals from coal plants and steel and chemical industries. Nutrients from agricultural runoff and sewer overflows are increasingly fueling harmful algal blooms. A toxic bloom covered 636 miles of the 981-mile river in 2015. Another bloom this year led Louisville Ironman organizers to cancel the Ohio River swim portion of the event. Environmental groups have also criticized the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission, an interstate water quality agency known as ORSANCO, for not being tougher on mercury pollution from power plants and other sources.
Flickner’s resumé looks tailor-made for this work. After canvassing, he learned the ins and outs of the Clean Water Act while challenging mountaintop removal mine permits with the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. He also fought ORSANCO for stronger pollution standards.
“I know him as a conservation warrior,” said Canon, the civil rights attorney. “If you start talking about conservation around here, his name’s gonna come up.”
And Flickner has already notched a win. In 2018, ORSANCO proposed eliminating its water quality standards for the river. Despite having nonprofit status for less than a year, Flickner appeared in multiple media reports criticizing the proposal, helped rally thousands of public comments and lobbied commissioners. The proposal was withdrawn, and the commission passed a weaker version months later.
Still, he wasn’t able to translate that publicity into a fundraising bump, he said. He hasn’t raised much money at all.
Part of the problem is his skillset: He’s always worked on the policy side and much less on development and isn’t sure how to cultivate large donors, which is work he says should be part of his board’s job. He’s also not entirely confident in his interpersonal skills.
“The way that I talk to people about this stuff, it turns people off because it’s just so despairing or it’s so overwhelming or it’s so complex,” he said.
He also said this kind of work is more difficult in historically red states like Indiana, and he’s not the only one who thinks that.
Since 2003, Rae Schnapp has been the Wabash Riverkeeper, which covers the watershed to the north of Flickner’s as part of the Waterkeeper Alliance. She said it’s still a struggle to grow, to recruit board members and volunteers. She said the national Waterkeeper group is getting better at supporting its individual member organizations, but they don’t provide funding. Member groups also pay a fee for the Waterkeeper name, which Schnapp said “might mean different things to different people.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental attorney carrying a name intrinsically tied to the Democratic Party, functions as the group’s figurehead, she said.
“That sets the tone for the whole organization, which does sometimes make it difficult in red states,” she said. “But hey, Indiana is a swing state now, so maybe it will be getting a little easier.”
Jessie Green, of the White River Waterkeeper in Arkansas, started her organization around the same time as Flickner, and they often commiserate about their struggles. She said she’s doing better than she was two years ago, having recruited around 200 members who give an annual donation. She’s even being paid some, though it’s less than she made in graduate school. She said she’s mostly working as a volunteer, which works for now because her husband makes enough to keep them afloat. But it’s not sustainable, she said.
“We’re in a red state. Environmentalist is almost a four-letter word in our area,” she said. “That’s definitely part of the struggle.”
But the problem for Flickner isn’t all party-line opposition to environmental causes. A person looking upstream from the pedestrian bridge where Flickner met the missionaries sees a 2,000-foot-wide river that winds back 600 miles to Pittsburgh through a century of industrial pollution and development. It’s easy to wonder: What could anyone possibly do about it?
“People know that it’s problematic,” Canon said. “People know that we should be doing more to keep the water clean. But the problem is so big for most of us that we don’t really stop to think about it in terms of what are the mechanics of actually making it happen.”
Flickner sees it similarly, often saying that people, regardless of their political affiliation, “wear blinders” to the problem because it feels too big. But the mechanics are clear to him: You sue.
“We’re not talking about population growth,” Flickner said, giving a common example of an intractable environmental problem. “We’re talking about a river where there are actual permits” issued by the state that can be challenged in court.
But to do that, he needs money (because litigation isn’t cheap) and members (to convince a judge his group has legal standing).
Flickner is just as frustrated with the people who he knows agree with him on environmental issues. They tell him the work he’s doing is important, but they don’t donate. They complain about the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, but they don’t give to causes that are fighting the effects.
The day he woke up to a checking overdraft, he said he blew up at two old friends who “commented in ignorance” in text messages about the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent weakening of the Waters of the United States rule, which defines the bodies of water that fall under federal jurisdiction. The next morning, he woke up to an email notice that one of the friends had set up a recurring annual $500 donation to Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper. He was grateful.
In the meantime, in the sitting room with the dog-licked windows, there’s a table with stuff from his grandparents’ house to sort through to see what he might be able to sell. There are also remnants of his grandparents’ turn as antique dealers — chairs, baskets — that aren’t family heirlooms and might get a good price from a local shop.
“I’ve been broke on and off like this my entire life,” he said. “Something will come through. Something always does.”
Jeff Brooks-Gillies, a freelance writer for Environmental Health News, authored this story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.