Sassafras Riverkeeper Zack Kelleher

Sassafras RIVERKEEPER® Zack Kelleher became Riverkeeper in 2019 when longtime Chester Riverkeeper Emmett Duke retired. The Sassafras RIVERKEEPER® is part of ShoreRivers that employs four Riverkeepers: Choptank, Miles-Wye, Chester and Sassafras Riverkeepers, who regularly patrol their rivers and tributaries, are ready to combat illegal pollution, and serve as guardians for these living resources. ShoreRivers is a merger of these Riverkeeper programs that occured in 2018 and also employs other scientists, outreach coordinators, and legal staff, all of whom strive to work at every level to improve and protect our rivers.

Zack uses advocacy, outreach, restoration, and education to be a voice for the river, its natural resources, and its inhabitants. He is a vigilant, on-the-water presence working with local communities to achieve a healthier Sassafras, tackling issues including the Conowingo Dam, invasive water chestnuts, and harmful algal blooms using science-based solutions. Previously, Zack was ShoreRivers’ Restoration and Outreach Manager, and he will be expanding outreach and restoration programs to four creeks in northern Kent County that flow directly to the Bay: Fairlee Creek, Worton Creek, Churn Creek, and Still Pond Creek.

A native Marylander, Kelleher’s conservation ethic and love of the Chesapeake Bay comes from the time he spent growing up outside of Tilghman Island. There, he learned to appreciate the rich cultural heritage and the immense beauty of the Eastern Shore while hunting, fishing, and crabbing on Harris Creek and the Choptank and Miles Rivers. Kelleher graduated from the University of Maryland with degrees in Psychology and Sustainability. 

Zack patrols the River regularly, looking for sources of pollution, conducting water quality testing, and observing the condition of shorelines and buffers. When he identifies potential issues, he works with homeowners, businesses, boaters and governments to correct the issue. He conducts regular water quality testing, both as part of the Sassafras Samplers and on his own. He is SRA’s lead researcher in the Sassafras Watershed Action Plan (SWAP).

The Sassafras River rises in western Delaware and flows westerly to the Chesapeake Bay, forming the natural boundary between Cecil and Kent Counties, Maryland.  The Sassafras is tidal for the majority of its approximately 20-mile length and is fresh to slightly brackish. The watershed comprises an area of 97.2 square miles, 75.5 of which is land. the Sassafras has been spared the large-scale development that has plagued so many localities.  It remains a largely rural area, with landscapes of farm fields and forests predominating.

A Voice for the Rivers: ShoreRivers version from Sandy Cannon-Brown on Vimeo.

The Sassafras Riverkeeper is engaged in a wide range of activities: advocacy, education, watershed assessment and monitoring — all focused on one principal goal, to remove the Sassafras River from Maryland’s list of polluted waterways.

Watershed Plan

The Sassafras Watershed Action Plan (SWAP) is a community based watershed plan developed over the course of one year (2009). SWAP was approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency in January 2010. The Plan includes 30 restoration strategies, cost estimates, responsible parties, implementation timeline and funding opportunities that will have clear and demonstrable effect on improving the water quality in the Sassafras River.

Sassafras River Report Card

Sassafras River Association produces an annual Report Card, detailing ecosystem health within the Sassafras River Watershed. The report grades the water quality of the estuary (tidal) and creeks (non-tidal) based on water monitoring data collected throughout the calendar year.

Sassafras Samplers

SRA has a volunteer water quality monitoring program, the Sassafras Samplers. It’s a great way for dedicated volunteers to learn the science of the River while making an essential contribution to our knowledge of River conditions. From 2005-2008, the Samplers tested 20 sites on the tidal portion of the River 3 times a year, in the spring, summer, and fall. The samplers tested for a number of parameters that indicate the overall health of the River. In 2009-2010, the Samplers expanded monthly testing to the tidal portion of the River as well as the non-tidal creeks and streams that flow into the River.

Agricultural Outreach

The SRA Agriculture Outreach program focuses on building relationships with Sassafras River watershed farmers, identifying opportunities for and implementing conservation projects, and promoting best management practices on agricultural operations throughout the watershed. The three main goals of the program include:

  • Developing relationships with the Sassafras River watershed agricultural community, including but not limited to farmers, NRCS, USDA and County SCD employees, DNR employees, Farm Bureau, University of Delaware and University of MD extension and research staff.
  • Identifying priority areas as well as specific sites for agricultural BMPs, conservation planning, and restoration projects.
  • Coordinating funding, technical assistance, and efforts of NRCS, SCD, DNR, Ducks Unlimited, and other sources to maximize assistance and simplify application and implementation processes for individual landowners in priority areas.
  • The agricultural outreach coordinator also stays closely involved with upcoming agricultural issues that impact the environment, including nutrient trading, CAFO regulations, nutrient management, and agronomic research.

Residential/Homeowner Outreach

The SRA Residential Outreach program is focused on working closely with homeowners and residents of the Sassafras River watershed to develop an awareness of the common pollutants that affect the River’s health as well as behavior changes that can positively impact water quality. SRA works in conjunction with its partners, including but not limited to University of Maryland Master Gardeners, University of Delaware Soil Testing Lab, Kent and Cecil County Departments of Environmental Health, and private denitrifying septic system manufacturers, to hold information workshops and training opportunities focused on changing behaviors and offering solutions to common issues. To date, SRA has focused its efforts on soil testing for lawn and gardens, rain barrel construction and use, denitrifying septic systems, and use of native landscaping at home. We offer workshops in the community for both soil testing and to build rain barrels. The SRA Residential Outreach program has also provided funding to homeowners interested in taking steps to reduce their impact on the Sassafras River, through free septic tests. Workshops and training opportunities are scheduled throughout the summer and fall.

Responsible Recreation Outreach

The Sassafras Riverkeeper monitors and patrols the River weekly from April through October. He promotes responsible use of the River (paddling, canoeing, bird watching, etc.) as well as disseminates information on Clean Boating practices and the Department of Natural Resources Clean Marina program. The Sassafras Riverkeeper speaks at a host of public forums (yacht clubs, homeowner’s associations, schools, events, etc.) to educate stakeholders and promote SRA’s mission of restoring the Sassafras.

Youth Outreach

The Sassafras Riverkeeper has an annual goal to reach every 4th grader in the watershed, with the goal of developing the next generation of stewards through education and awareness. The Sassafras Riverkeeper participates in Kent County’s outdoor education program as well as Boy Scout, Girl Scout and other youth based activities in both Cecil and Kent Counties. Children participate in simple water quality sampling (tidal waters) and macroinvertebrate investigation (non-tidal waters). Children learn about sources of pollution and steps they can take to improve water quality.

Educational Forums

In the beginning SRA hosted educational forums to educate stakeholders about our watershed. With the implementation of SWAP, SRA now hosts workshops on restoration strategies and occasional meetings on relevant topics.


An important part of our mission is to work with Federal, State and local governments on issues that affect the Sassafras River watershed, such as a new residential development, a change in zoning laws, or other proposed legislation. Examples include the Cecil County Tier Map that does not comply with the law or Cecil County’s Comprehensive Plan and would lead to increased development of septics and more nitrogen pollution to the tributaries and river. Past issues include the Galena Waste Water Treatment Plant Expansion and Sewer Line Extension to Georgetown, and the Kent Recycling and Land Reclamation, LLC (Rubble Dump).


Matt Pluta (Choptank), Elle Bassett (Miles-Wye), Tim Trumbauer (Chester), Zack Kelleher (Sassafras)