When Dana Aunkst grew up in Northcentral Pennsylvania, he didn’t have to look far from home to see water quality problems.
He grew up in Watsontown, a small community along the West Branch of the Susquehanna, one of the state’s most troubled waterways, with vast stretches rendered largely lifeless by a legacy of acid mine drainage.
Watsontown wasn’t near the worst of the problems. Still, Aunkst recalled, “the fishing at that time was limited to what we called trash fish — carp and warmwater types of fish that were pollution-tolerant.”
Over time, efforts to fix damaged headwater streams have delivered results for the river — and created a popular bass fishery.
“It’s obvious that a lot of the work that’s been done in the upper part of the watershed has really benefitted the lower part,” Aunkst said. “It’s a completely different fishery at this point.”
Now, Aunkst hopes to see upstream efforts pay off on an even greater scale. As the newest director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office — and the first native Pennsylvanian to hold that position — he oversees a multibillion-dollar effort aimed at restoring the health of the nation’s largest estuary by improving rivers and streams that drain its 64,000-square-mile watershed.
Although the Bay has seen improvements in recent years, it remains far from meeting its water quality goals, and scientists are still assessing the extent of damage inflicted by last year’s record-high rainfall that flooded the Chesapeake with water-fouling mud and nutrients.
“I am someone who really, really enjoys being challenged in my work,” said Aunkst, who started in the new position in late December. “I don’t get much from coming to the office and doing the same thing.”
Aunkst, 58, has been working on water quality issues for more than three decades since graduating from Penn State University with a degree in chemical engineering. He worked on environmental programs for local governments and private industry before joining the state’s environmental agency, then called the Department of Environmental Resources, in 1985 as an entry level engineer stationed in its regional office in Meadville, not far from Lake Erie.
Over the years, he worked in other regional offices and the department’s headquarters in Harrisburg, often tackling assignments related to developing permits and programs that would protect water quality from discharges. He rose steadily through the ranks of what is now the Department of Environmental Protection, and even served as acting secretary in 2014.
A number of difficult assignments came along the way. In the wake of the fracking boom that began a decade ago, he was the primary author of new regulations to control discharges of total dissolved solids, or TDS, from rapidly expanding natural gas drilling activities.
During hydraulic fracturing, large amounts of water are pumped into the ground under high pressure to break up rocks and release pockets of natural gas — a process that creates huge amounts of polluted wastewater.
“Their discharges [have] really highly concentrated TDS,” Aunkst said. “Our watersheds really wouldn’t sustain that type of load over a lengthy time.”
He had to come up with new regulations and treatment technologies to protect streams, many of which were in some of the most pristine areas of the state. As a result, he said, “the industry has really changed the way it manages its wastewater. It really pushed them toward recycle and reuse versus treatment and discharge because of cost. So we prevented the potential for a lot of problems in Pennsylvania.”
His interactions with the Bay Program go back to 1991, when he worked with its modelers in establishing the first round of state and river nutrient reduction goals. His worked has periodically intersected with the Bay ever since.
In the early 2000s, he helped develop the state’s permitting strategy for wastewater treatment plants to meet Bay restoration goals. And, with Pennsylvania facing threats from the EPA over its lagging cleanup efforts, Aunkst was given the task of writing the state’s “reboot” strategy in 2016, which continues to serve as the blueprint for accelerating its efforts to meet Bay cleanup obligations.
That on-and-off involvement with the Chesapeake over the years made him interested in the Bay Program position after its last director, Nick DiPasquale, retired at the end of 2017. “I enjoy being challenged and solving problems,” Aunkst said. “And this is one that — having been in and out of this program as part of Pennsylvania over the years — I just can’t let go.”
Indeed, the region as a whole is off track for meeting nutrient reduction goals established in the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet. And nowhere is the problem more acute than in the Keystone State, which needs to accomplish roughly six time more nitrogen reductions in the next seven years than it has done since the TMDL went into effect.
But Aunkst said he is encouraged that Pennsylvania — which could face actions from the EPA if it doesn’t make adequate headway — is starting to come to grips with its problem, and not just at governmental levels, but with stakeholders such as farmers. “I think it really has changed course,” he said. “I think it is a problem that is solvable. It is not going to be easy.”
That will be tested in the coming months as states need to complete new watershed implementation plans showing how they will meet Bay cleanup goals by 2025. Plans are due to the EPA for review in April, with final documents expected in August.
But the Bay restoration is about more than just water quality. The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which the Bay Program is in charge of implementing, outlines 31 specific outcomes, only three of which relate to reducing nutrient and sediment pollution.
Other goals address issues as varied as restoring oysters, improving stream health, expanding tree canopies in urban areas, improving fish passage, increasing the diversity of people involved in restoration efforts, conserving land, and expanding environmental education, among many others.
Efforts to meet many of those goals are starting to fall behind as well, and Aunkst acknowledged that the Bay Program will need to quickly pivot to put more focus on those initiatives once the watershed implementation plan process is complete.
“Right now, the water quality piece, because of the TMDL, is the regulatory driver,” Aunkst said. “And yet, in order to sustain water quality once we get there, we really need to be accomplishing all of those other things as well.”
Without improving local stream health and fish habitats, restoring water-filtering wetlands and building engaged and diverse public support for those initiatives, “all of this effort could easily go away in the future,” he said. “Without everything else in place as we move forward, the sustainability of that water quality effort is in question.”
In the end, that goal ties back to his own roots. Growing up, Aunkst said, he gained an appreciation for the outdoors from his father and grandfather, who were avid hunters and anglers.
When he began working in the environmental field, he said, he was helping to preserve those opportunities for future generations. “That got me back into what I loved — not just the engineering component, but also the component about conserving and protecting the resources for my kids and my grandkids.”