This Indian American ‘Water Warrior’ Is Saving San Francisco Bay

Meet Sejal Choksi-Chugh, whose commitment to saving the San Francisco Bay from pollution is winning her accolades.

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Sejal Choksi-Chugh on her patrol boat in 2017.
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‘Water warrior’ Sejal’s passion for conservation has been shaped significantly by her childhood experiences. Riding an elephant, little Sejal started crying when she was about one-fourth the way up a hill to visit a fort, during one of her family’s vacations to India. Atlanta, US-born Sejal could not bear to see the torture being meted out to the poor animal: “I was visiting India, doing a touristy elephant ride in Jaipur. I broke down as the elephant was being whipped constantly to egg it on to climb the hill. It really bothered me and I demanded that I be let down. That is the moment I realised that the welfare of animals, how they are treated, mattered to me.”

Sejal’s Conscientious Childhood & What Led Her to Becoming the ‘Baykeeper’

This incident made young Sejal passionate about animal care. What really cemented her commitment to environmental justice was a quarry and asphalt plant next to her school.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, in an Indian family, Sejal’s home was all about restoring and recycling, in the true desi spirit of thrift and hard work. But outside her home, a large and dirty quarry covered her world with perpetual powder, and made her realise the significance of public health: “We lived near a quarry. When I would come out of school, everything used to be covered in brownish dust. My brother had asthma, my parents and I ended up having cancer. The company exposed us to such risk and pollution in the name of profits – it was impossible to accept. Right from high school, I was looking to stop pollution in neighbourhoods and that journey led me to Baykeeper.”

Sejal Choksi-Chugh is the Baykeeper and Executive Director of the non-profit organisation San Francisco (SF) Baykeeper which works to stop pollution of the SF Bay. A cancer survivor, not to be left powerless in front of big corporations, and with a strong calling to protect communities from environmental damage, Sejal went on to earn degrees in public health and a Masters in environmental law from UC Berkeley.

She drifted towards water law courses, and when she saw an opening at San Francisco Baykeeper, she knew that “I never wanted to be anywhere else!”Indian American Sejal Choksi-Chugh is the premier watchdog of the San Francisco Bay – defending its water quality, health, and wildlife every day.

How San Francisco Bay Area Residents Are Affected By Environmental Pollution

Fog envelops the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF Bay beneath it — icons that are featured on numerous postcards, films and travel magazines — and they remain the most recognised symbols of San Francisco, attracting people from all over the world since the great gold rush, to visit or make the Bay Area their home. San Francisco Bay is a treasure of the Bay Area’s landscape, communities, and economy. The world appreciates its beauty without noticing that its health is under threat every day.

Oil spills, vessel pollution, residential, industrial and agricultural contaminants make their way to its waters.

The Bay is a mix of ocean and fresh waters coming together, a unique ecosystem that is threatened as agricultural industries take up a lot of water in its delta areas, making the ocean more saline, which disrupts the natural habitat of more than 500 species. At least seven million people here have been impacted by pollution.

How Sejal Takes On Daily Battles to Protect SF Bay

Keeping the San Francisco Bay clean is a daily battle. Baykeeper identifies and investigates damaging activities, compelling polluters to stop contaminating, and holds government agencies accountable. It is the only organisation that uses a patrol boat to track pollution in the bay. Its most effective advocate, Sejal, can be seen on the SF Bay often:

“The work of Baykeeper is very hands on. I am on the water pretty frequently, looking for pollution. We have a field inspector and a pollution hotline. We also have a drone, so I am lucky.”

One day at work, on a routine boat patrol, Sejal was approaching a facility along a harbour, and spotted a dark material lying on the dock, to be loaded onto a ship. “As we were watching, the material fell into water. Petroleum coke has toxic materials in it. None of these contaminants should be going into the water.”

She took them to court for violating the Clean Water Act and polluting the Bay, and won: “It is very hard work, that takes a long time, but we almost always win as the law is on our side. We make sure it is enforced.”

Impact of Sejal’s Work & Commitment

Sejal’s focus area covers the entire Bay and its tributaries, anchoring the nine counties of the Bay Area — the expanse of the Silicon Valley. Her leadership has helped reduce pollution from storm water drains, sewage spills, pesticides and trash from reaching the SF Bay. She and her team of scientists and attorneys at Baykeeper challenge government agencies to improve the legal framework that protects the waters.

Baykeeper was the first organisation in the US to protect a waterbody on the west coast, and is recognised as the leader in oil spill prevention and response in the country.

Baykeeper Sejal Choksi-Chugh knows what global warming will bring.

“Sea levels are expected to rise 3 to 10 feet in the next 50 to 100 years. Baykeeper has identified 1100 toxic lands — historically contaminated and current industrial sites. This pollution on land will move to water, threatening wildlife and impacting people in the Bay Area. There are a lot of recreational users in the SF Bay. There will arise health concerns — we are not only about the birds and fish, but also about human health.”

How Sejal is Giving Back to India, Her Parents’ Home

Sejal’s parents were very supportive about her going to law school, but like typical parents, when she got the job at Baykeeper, they couldn’t comprehend what she was up to: “My dad really did not understand what kind of a job it was. He felt it was a volunteering assignment! Since then, I have taken them on the boat, they have seen me receive awards and I have showed them newspaper clippings mentioning my work. My mom understands it is not a law firm career, but it is relevant and it fulfils me.”

Unfortunately, her father passed away a few years back.

Sejal lives with her husband and two teenage children in the SF Bay Area, who are very involved in her work.

Along with defending the SF Bay daily, Sejal also collaborates with the largest non-profit focused on clean water, the Waterkeeper Alliance, that connects Waterkeeper groups globally — their goal being drinkable, fishable, swimmable water everywhere.

“It's a big movement of over 350 Waterkeepers, There are Waterkeepers in India who are helping to clean rivers in various parts of the country that are a part of the Waterkeeper Alliance. There's a lot of information sharing that happens during talks, presentations, and mentorship meetings.”

Her small but mighty organisation, the San Francisco Baykeeper, is a founding member of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Sejal is giving back to the country her parents were born in, which she considers a part of her identity and heritage, by supporting water groups in India.

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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