A three-member panel recently spoke at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, marking the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, as part of the Rivanna Conservation Society’s Clean Water Forum.
“I’m absolutely blessed to be a part of a program like this,” Robbi Savage, executive director of the Rivanna Conservation Society, said at Thursday’s forum. “Everyone wants to do something meaningful with their life, and the Clean Water Act has allowed me to do that.”
The public conversation about water quality has evolved since the mid-1960s, when Rebecca Hanmer began work as one of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s initial employees.
“I’m a living fossil of the clean water program,” Hanmer said.
Before the Clean Water Act, states regulated water. Standards weren’t uniform.
“There were strong and weak state programs at the time,” Hanmer said. “And there was also concern that weak state regulations would encourage businesses that were heavy polluters to move to weak states.”
Improvements are needed in the way environmentalists and farmers relate to one another, said Tom Hebert, former deputy under-secretary for natural resources in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Farmers are serious, thoughtful people who, like all of us, want to make a contribution,” said Hebert, CEO of Bayard Ridge Group, a Washington lobbying firm. “When you sit down with farmers and say, ‘I’m from Washington and I’m here to help,’ they can be a bit skeptical. We have to keep our goals practical, and we have to ask ourselves how we can turn farmers into problem solvers.”
Agricultural subsidies should be linked to clean-water practices, he said.
“Farmers are practical people,” he said. “We have to focus on providing financial assistance that is going to help. If the money goes away, the practices we’re working to implement will go away.”
Of recent local concern is establishing a strategy to improve the health of the Rivanna River watershed.
“Seventy percent of Rivanna streams failed Virginia’s aquatic health standard, due to erosion and sedimentation and E. coli,” Savage said. “We’re working to develop a clean-water strategy based on science, technology, personal ethics and community awareness.”
In a September presentation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality identified sediment as the major stressor in Charlottesville-area streams. The agency recommended reducing sediment by 13 percent to 19.3 percent in area streams.
“To do this, we’ll need the public and private sectors to work together,” Savage said. “And we’ll need money.”