Activist Spotlight
February 13 2020

Activist Spotlight: Liz Schotman with the Olympia, Washington BWTF

by Colleen Henn

Please meet Liz Schotman, Blue Water Task Force extraordinaire who heads up the incredible water testing efforts of the Olympia Chapter. The close collaborative relationship of the Olympia Chapter and the Washington State Department of Ecology sets this Blue Water Task Force lab apart from most other labs, because chapter volunteers directly participate in the State's seasonal beach monitoring program. Hear from Liz Schotman herself about why this program provides such a great value to the community. 

Q: Why and when did you get involved with the Surfrider Foundation?  

I’m originally from Florida, where Surfrider has a pretty strong presence, so I was already familiar with their mission. When I moved to Olympia, Washington in 2018, I was looking for a way to get involved and contribute to my new community. Surfrider seemed like a great way to do that while working on issues I’m passionate about. Plus it’s a great way to meet rad people!

Q: What are some local issues that affect water quality in your community?   

I live at the southern tip of Puget Sound, and stormwater runoff, along with the plastic and pollution it brings, is a huge issue that affects both human health and wildlife. For example, nutrient runoff from lawns, pet waste, agriculture, leaky septic tanks, etc., can create conditions that fuel toxic algal blooms that threaten our fisheries and our health. New research is showing that pharmaceuticals and toxic chemicals from industry is showing up in our seafood, as are microplastics. Marine debris is a massive problem both here and globally that we are only just beginning to realize the long-lasting repercussions of.

Q: How is your Chapter/Club responding to those issues?

Regular water quality monitoring is critical – knowing there’s a problem is the first step to solving it. Our chapter’s Blue Water Task Force has been collecting water samples off of Priest Point Park for the past few years, working with the Dept. of Ecology’s BEACH program. Their staff is amazing, and they provide equipment and training for Surfrider volunteers, who collect water samples and drop them off at the lab for analysis. Helping to facilitate this partnership between community members and state agencies, all working together towards cleaner waterways, has been very rewarding.

To address the plastic pollution issue, we have several beach cleanups on the coast every year, which are a great way to get people involved. We’ve also started organizing regular ‘butt pickups’ in downtown Olympia, where we focus specifically on picking up cigarette butts before they get washed into our waterways. While I love cleanups, they are like putting a band-aid on a broken leg – it raises awareness, but it’s no solution, which is why our chapter also works to pass legislation that addresses the source of these problems. We also run an Ocean Friendly Restaurant program where we encourage local businesses to implement sustainability measures, such as eliminating single-use plastics. With such a huge and pervasive issue, you have to address it on multiple levels.

Looking forward, I’d love to see our volunteer base grow large enough to support a robust Ocean Friendly Gardens program. Plants are the best technology we have to filter stormwater, and I think there’s a lot of great opportunities to clean up our waterways and beautify our area with some rain gardens. It rains here. A lot. So why not?

Q: What has been the highlight of your Surfrider experience (i.e., campaign, program, victory)? 

While campaign victories are awesome, to me the highlights of working with Surfrider are those brief moments where people come up to me and thank me, or tell me how Surfrider’s efforts have helped them change their behavior. I had a family member randomly text me the other day and tell me that they refuse single serving plastics and work to reduce their waste stream a little every day because of me. I had no idea, and it was one of those powerful micro-moments that do so much to combat the endless stream of negative news and pending apocalypses. So if someone has inspired you to change your behavior or get involved or just think about things differently, tell them. It probably means more than they’ll let on.

Q: Why is being involved in the Surfrider Foundation important to you?

I have been very fortunate in that I’ve lived on or near the water for almost my entire life. It’s shaped who I am and what my core values are. And it floors me that, for every major river I have ever lived on, it wasn’t safe to eat the fish from that river. Every ocean I’ve gone freediving or kayaking in, every remote beach I’ve walked along, I’ve encountered trash. Sometimes dangerous trash. Being involved in Surfrider is important to me because it reminds me that I am not alone in my fight for clean, safe water. There are thousands of people out there that refuse to sit back and accept the continual loss of our most critical natural resources, individuals with the passion and dedication to work toward improving our world. Having the collective energy of a global activist movement helps me keep fighting. Plus those people kick ass and Surfrider’s a great excuse to hang out with them.

Q: How can we all pitch in to help protect clean water and healthy beaches?

I think it’s critically important to be politically engaged, especially at local levels, and push for regulations that protect our natural resources. But I think it’s equally important that we shift our culture away from irresponsible and extractive consumerism and toward sustainability and stewardship. Whether in your family, your business, your friend groups, your sports team – we can all shift the narrative of what is socially acceptable behavior by leading by example and not accepting the unsustainable status quo. If you’re throwing a party, tell everyone to bring their own dishes instead of using disposable ones. If someone throws trash or a cigarette butt on the ground, engage them. Or my personal favorite, if your spouse leaves the water running while brushing their teeth, turn the faucet off while making aggressive, unblinking, disapproving eye contact.

Q:  Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the bad news out there and start thinking, “What’s the point? What I do doesn’t matter.” My chosen profession of conservation is a depressing one. Everything I love, everything I value, is threatened. My reefs are bleaching, my swamps are being turned into strip malls, my beaches are covered in trash, my rivers are polluted, my forests are burning, my critters are going extinct, people are suffering... Combatting the conservation blues is a daily struggle, and it’s easy to get marooned in the spiritual swamp of sorrows thinking that everything’s doomed, so why bother.

But small steps really do add up, whether that’s participating in clean-up events, bringing a reusable takeout container to the next restaurant you go to, fixing your car’s oil leak, planting trees, etc. The whole think global, act local slogan is legit. Take a few small steps and see where it leads you!

Check out this short video of Liz explaining the Olypia Chapter's collaboration with the State: