For the first time in its short history, the Choose Clean Water Conference hit the road this year, meeting in Lancaster instead of Washington, DC.
The change of location meant fewer powerhouse Washington speakers. No Rep. Elijah Cummings giving a rousing address about safeguarding clean water for generations yet unborn. No EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson talking passionately about strengthening regulations to protect the nation's waterways. No Sen. Benjamin Cardin stressing the importance of Chesapeake Bay protection legislation.
Instead, the star of the conference was the city itself. Lancaster recently undertook a $140 million green infrastructure initiative to solve its stormwater problem through a series of public improvements — more parks, more trees, more pervious pavement and more green roofs.
Fritz Schroeder and Daneen Sorace of Live Green Lancaster, a key partner in the greening initiative, led a tour of the city's various green infrastructure projects. (See "Greening of Lancaster, PA, goes through the roof," Bay Journal, May 2012.) They include pervious pavement at Franklin and Marshall College as well as several green roofs in the city. Lancaster Public Works Director Charlotte Katzenmoyer spoke on several panels about stormwater.
And Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray cleared his schedule for three days to attend as many of the sessions as he could, making himself available to regional water advocates, policy makers and others who would like to replicate Lancaster's success. The Choose Clean Water Coalition was formed in 2008 with the hope of getting regional groups to speak with a more unified voice on Chesapeake Bay issues, just as similar coalitions have done in the Great Lakes and the Everglades. The coalition has 230 members now, ranging in size from small, creek-based groups to large national ones like American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation.
The move out of Washington gave the event a more intimate feel, with more of a focus on Pennsylvania issues, such as Marcellus Shale and Plain Sect farmers. But it also dealt with the universal challenges the coalition faces: Paying for stormwater improvements when local and state governments are strapped for cash; controlling farm runoff; and trading pollution credits.
"You know, I really love the name of this conference," Gray said in his welcoming remarks. "What does it say? It says it's an option. You can have clean water if you want it. We're not victims. It's our choice."
Those remarks were a good introduction to a packed plenary session Tuesday on the defense of the Clean Water Act. There, longtime Washington lobbyists on behalf of clean water talked about how the 2012 Congress was the worst in decades. Several members, most notably Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, have introduced legislation that would weaken the EPA's authority to enforce the Clean Water Act and the Total Maximum Daily Load. Goodlatte's bill is not likely to get anywhere before Congress recesses. But it's likely to come back in the next Congress. At that time, depending on the results of the 2012 election, Congress could be more amenable to restricting the federal government's authority and handing more water-protection duties to the states, which are not likely to have adequate staff or funds to enforce them.
Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, reminded the audience that, on the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, several members of Congress are preparing to make the act weaker. That's a sharp contrast to the climate in 1972, when every single senator voted for the act. It is rare to see such unity today.
The act was not perfect then, Siglin acknowledged. It was effective with point sources, but not with agriculture, as farms weren't regulated by the act unless they had animal feeding operations.
"As weak as it is, there is now a huge movement under way to make it weaker," Siglin said, referring to efforts by Goodlatte, among others, to shift regulating water to the states. "There is a very, very good chance we will see that legislation in the next Congress."
"I've been a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. for 20 years, and this is the worst Congress ever," said Anna Aurilio, Director of Environment America's Washington office. "Our opposition is well-funded."
But, she added, the oil companies who spend millions of dollars on lobbyists "have to spend that money because they don't have the public behind them….We are leaving power on the table."
Hilary Harp Falk, the coalition's senior manager, said the conference would go on the road next year as well. The coalition hasn't decided on a city, but candidates include Charlottesville, VA, and Baltimore.