A Moment in Time for Clean Water
Choose Clean Water campaign logo

IN MAY 2009, shortly after President Barack Obama issued his Executive Order calling for a stronger federal role in the Chesapeake Bay clean up effort, a newly formed coalition of environmental groups launched the Choose Clean Water Campaign. The campaign, now representing over 150 organizations from each of the six states in the Chesapeake watershed, seeks federal leadership to improve water quality in the hundreds of streams and rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

It's been a big year for the fledgling coalition. In January 2010, over 250 people attended the first annual Choose Clean Water conference. Legislators from local, state, and federal levels came to speak to the group. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson chose the conference as the venue to announce new federal rulemaking on stormwater and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

The conference focused primarily on harnessing the energy of the coalition around a single legislative priority for the year. The bill at the forefront is the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Act of 2009, introduced concurrently in the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives by Benjamin Cardin (MD) and Elijah Cummings (MD-7).

Cardin and Cummings both spoke at plenary sessions to explain the terms of their introduced bill. The legislation would give the EPA more authority to hold Bay-area states accountable for meeting pollution reduction goals, and the power to clamp down on states by withholding federal funds if they break their promises.

The proposed law would also provide new tools for controlling stormwater runoff and would authorize $1.5 billion in new federal grants to build better stormwater control systems. In addition, the bill sets a firm deadline of 2025 for states to have all necessary programs in place to meet Chesapeake Bay water quality restoration goals, with interim checks on progress to be conducted every two years.

Though the proposed legislation was a major focus, the conference also exposed participants to a suite of issues related to water quality in the Bay watershed. Sessions explored emerging threats to water quality in the headwaters, such as the sediment stored behind the Conowingo dam and the boom of natural gas exploration in the Marcellus Shale rock formation in Pennsylvania. Extensive discussions also took place on preparations for a Baywide TMDL (total maximum daily load), which will prescribe a specific discharge cap for nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Another session provided a hands-on workshop on tools for effective communication about water quality.

Hilary Harp Falk, the senior manager for the Choose Clean Water coalition, could not have been more pleased about the conference outcome. "It was wonderful to have such an outpouring from community," she says. "What we really loved is that it was a great kickoff for the coalition, a chance to talk about why this moment for clean water is so critical."

But despite this strong start, the coalition has its work cut out for itself, Falk says. The group is working to engage those who care about clean water but who are often left out, such as local sportsmen's organizations. Coalition leaders are working to help people on the ground understand their connection to the federal level. "We have a long way to go. Many don't appreciate the power they have to make change."

March 2010
vol. 9, no. 1
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