Fresh out of the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in civil engineering in hand, Jon Capacasa made a cross-state trip in 1974 to interview for a job with a fledgling federal agency.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was not quite 4 years old, and was still staffing up to oversee sweeping new environmental laws. The Clean Air Act had been passed in 1970, the Clean Water Act came two years later. The Safe Drinking Water Act was about to become law.
Capacasa got the job, and soon found himself working on drinking water programs in the EPA Region 3 headquarters, which was then across the street from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “It was very inspirational,” he recalled.
Earlier this month, he stepped down after 42 years at the agency. For the last 13 years, he’d been director of the region’s water protection division, overseeing all water programs in the region. His legacy includes overseeing the development of the landmark Bay “pollution diet,” as well as efforts to clean up the Anacostia River and promoting a wider use of green infrastructure to fix stormwater woes.
Despite a number of high-profile accomplishments to rein in Bay pollution, which included cleaning up discharges from wastewater plants, Capacasa was remarkably low-key. Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA Bay Program Office, said Capacasa played a “vital role” in improving water quality throughout the Bay watershed, but added, “he served in this role quietly behind the scenes.” Indeed, he once received an “Unsung Hero” award from the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, the top policy-making body guiding the Bay effort.
“He was someone who never worried about getting credit,” said Bill Matuszeski, who was director of the EPA Bay Program Office from 1991 to 2001. Capacasa, who had begun working on Bay issues the previous year, was deputy director of the Bay Program for most of that time.
Many of his actions were significant, if not headline-making. For instance, he created a new budget and planning process that gave state Bay Program participants greater say in how federal restoration money was being spent. It wasn’t high-profile work, but colleagues credit that process with more fully engaging states in the still relatively new Bay effort.
“He really established some strong institutions that exist to this day,” Matuszeski said.
Looking for ways to better communicate how the Bay was doing, Capacasa led the effort to develop a set of indicators in the 1990s to show how pollution, species and habitat were faring. It was a forerunner to today’s report cards, and it became one of several governmentwide models for reporting program performance.
Capacasa helped to plan the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, a document that — with many Bay goals already missed — began including timetables for getting things done. It was that pact that pledged to develop a more enforceable water-quality restoration plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, if the Bay was not cleaned up by 2010.
“He had this attitude that we should just get things done, and not worry much about who’s complaining about this, who is getting credit for that,” Matuszeski said. “There were things that we all knew needed to get done, and we should just get them done.”
After becoming the region’s water division director in 2003, Capacasa began using the EPA’s regulatory muscle to advance the Bay cleanup. In 2005, he led an effort that replaced voluntary targets in wastewater discharge permits with enforceable nitrogen limits. Since then, 472 plants have been, or are being, upgraded. That has slashed nitrogen pollution by about 20 million pounds — roughly a quarter of all nitrogen reductions since cleanup efforts began in the mid-1980s.
“We did the target thing for 10 years,” Capacasa said. But it had become clear that new technologies were available to reduce discharges of nitrogen, one of the key nutrients fouling Bay water. “We knew that we needed to put in effective limits that are enforceable.”
His biggest Chesapeake contribution, though, was leading the Bay TMDL development. TMDLs set absolute limits on pollutants that enter waterways. Although tens of thousands of such plans had been developed nationwide, none covered an area so large — spanning parts of six states and the District of Columbia. Nor was any as complex as the Bay plan would be.
Capacasa began to conceptualize a new type of TMDL while co-chairing a national panel trying to find solutions to the nutrient problems plaguing the nation’s waterways. Most nutrient pollution comes from sources largely unregulated by the federal government, such as farms. One idea he got from that group drew inspiration from the federal Clean Air Act, where the EPA sets goals for pollutants, but gives states the flexibility to figure out how to achieve them, with the federal agency able to step in if goals aren’t met.
In the Bay TMDL, the agency adopted the same approach, with the EPA establishing nutrient limits, but leaving it to the states to develop and implement plans. That mattered because the agency has little authority over farms, which generate much of the Bay’s pollution. Instead, the EPA monitors states’ overall progress toward reaching the nutrient limits and can take various actions if states fall behind.
“People are going to write books about how that came together, and he was right there spearheading the whole thing,” said Jeff Corbin, who was involved with the TMDL first as a senior Virginia environmental official, and later as EPA Bay adviser. “It’s still kind of amazing to me that we actually got through all the steps to get that in place.”
It was finished by the deadline set in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement — with two days to spare. But it has been controversial, drawing lawsuits and several attempts by Congress to thwart its implementation, all of which have failed so far. Asked whether the TMDL would prove to be durable over time, Capacasa knocked on wood.
“We defended it once, twice, three times,” he said, a reference to the agency’s victories in legal challenges at the district and circuit court levels, and ultimately the Supreme Court’s decision last year not to hear an appeal by farm and development interests.
Capacasa was instrumental in promoting fledgling green infrastructure techniques for reducing stormwater pollution, which were being pioneered in the Bay watershed. They protect local streams by getting rainwater to soak into the ground rather than get flushed into waterways.
At first, municipalities were reluctant to try green infrastructure practices like rain gardens, green roofs and swales, which they weren’t used to working with.
“We gave the assurance to the permittees that if you do this you will get credit for it, and at the same time help your communities thrive,” Capacasa said. He also helped create the EPA’s Green Streets program which gave grants to local initiatives that turned pavement into green open spaces while reducing runoff.
His interest in green infrastructure stemmed in part from his long-standing involvement with efforts to clean up the Anacostia River, which drains much of the area in and around the District of Columbia. Despite its high-profile location, the Anacostia is one of the most polluted waterways in the region — and was once dubbed the “forgotten river.” He’s since gotten green infrastructure requirements into stormwater permits, led the development of a TMDL to reduce trash in the river, and overseen construction of massive tunnels to hold overflows from the city’s combined stormwater and sewer system, which sends huge amounts of raw sewage into the river during heavy rains.
“The Anacostia is a great story. It’s certainly no longer the forgotten river,” Capacasa said. He said he’d like to be invited back next year when the first tunnel goes online. “You will see a near elimination of those discharges to the river, and a lot of trash reductions as well.”
James Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, whose goal is to achieve a fishable and swimmable river by 2025, credited Capacasa for keeping a focus on the effort, even after he became responsible for water issues throughout the entire mid-Atlantic.
“I feel very strongly that we are going to declare victory in 2025, and it is in no small part due to Jon’s efforts over the last 30 years,” Foster said. “Sometimes we need that quiet person behind the scenes who is working methodically all the time on the issues and making stuff happen.”
Reflecting on his career, Capacasa said it’s been “a fun ride,” but he recognizes that despite improvements, much work remains. While green infrastructure may be catching on, stormwater remains a challenge for communities.
“The elephant in the room is cost,” he said, especially for older urban areas built before any type of stormwater controls were required.
At least part of the solution, he believes, are new public-private partnerships, like one his office has worked to pilot in Prince George’s County, MD, where local officials work with private firms on green infrastructure. Private entities, Capacasa contended, can move more rapidly and have more flexibility to acquire the many small tracts of land throughout a community that may be needed to give runoff a chance to soak into the ground. “That is a government procurement nightmare,” he said.
Similarly, he said that he thinks the Bay restoration will need creative solutions to get cleanup efforts over the finish line, especially in Pennsylvania, which is far behind schedule.
Those creative fixes could include nongovernmental initiatives, Capacasa suggested, in which companies that contract to purchase farm products require certification that pollution-reducing management practices are in place on farms. Traditional agricultural cost-share programs are unlikely to ever have enough funding to pay for all of the needed pollution reductions, he said, especially in Pennsylvania, where investments would have to be ramped up four or five times above current levels.
“We’re obviously making progress, but for that final leg that we’ve got to run, it’s going to take some new solutions — nongovernmental solutions — and focusing our resources where the shortfalls are,” Capacasa said.
For now, Capacasa said he plans to spend more time babysitting his two grandchildren, traveling with his wife, taking up birdwatching, kayaking and “enjoying the water environment we helped to clean up.”
But he won’t be losing touch with water issues. Starting in the spring, he hopes to be inspiring a new generation of engineers and water managers to solve remaining problems. He’ll be teaching a course on large watershed restoration at Drexel University — where he said he’ll be “using plenty of the Chesapeake Bay references.”