On the Bea Hayman Clark, the educational vessel that takes hundreds of school-age children and their teachers out on the Potomac River each year, Sam Woolford is used to teaching students what the river is like now, and what it could be like in the future.
But, occasionally, he takes out the people who need to make that possible future a reality — local and state leaders. With both groups, though, there’s some fundamental similarities, like learning the rules.
“When I say drop the rope, that means drop the rope,” Woolford said, not necessarily chiding, but emphasizing the rules before letting a group of state and local officials, along with their aides and some family members, haul in a net full of the river’s fish on a mid-August trip. He repeated the instructions one more time — and made those manning the rope practice — to get the point across over the din of a couple-dozen people in conversation.
The passengers boarded the boat in Alexandria, VA, for a day off from their desk work. They wanted to learn about the waterways many of them are charged with protecting, whether through enforcing existing regulations at the local level or writing new ones in the Virginia General Assembly.
The boat trip was one of seven so-called “decision maker experiences” led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation so far this year in the Virginia portion of the watershed, where another nine trips took place last year.
Trips like these invite officials onto workboats or canoes to analyze water quality, pull in fishing nets or plant oysters on restoration reefs, all while learning about how their local policies could benefit the Bay.
They are “a great opportunity for state and local leaders to spend time out on our waterways and explore ways we can work together for clean water,” said Peggy Sanner, the CBF’s Virginia assistant director and senior attorney.
Other outings have taken place on the Lafayette, Patapsco and Susquehanna rivers.
Not unlike the other educational outings the nonprofit leads throughout the watershed, this one focused on some of the Chesapeake Bay basics before delving into issues that might come up in the General Assembly or on local city councils in the coming months.
“My constituents are concerned about the health of the Potomac River,” said Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, whose 44th District abuts the river. “I’m on appropriations, too, so I really wanted to come out here to see what kind of money we should be budgeting to get the Chesapeake Bay cleaned up.”
Nearby, a few of his colleagues were using black-and-white Secchi disks to measure the transparency of the water. They slowly lowered them beneath the surface until they were barely visible beneath the river water that, in some places, looked like diluted chocolate milk, then clearer in others.
The boat had crossed the width of the Potomac before idling not far from DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Woolford explained that, for those who lived in portions of Fairfax or Loudoun counties, everything they flushed or drained came to the plant to be treated and then discharged to the Potomac.
A nearby outfall released some of that treated effluent and carved a plume of bluer, clearer water into the murky Potomac, and Woolford asked the group why they thought that was. What was giving the river its otherwise muddy appearance?
“How did all this dirt get into the Potomac?” he asked.
“From my home in the Shenandoah River,” said Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, to laughs from the others. “It was totally brown this summer.”
Gooditis was only partially joking, and later asked the CBF officials how much sediment her hometown river did contribute to the Potomac. Another delegate egged her on anyway about “letting” the Shenandoah get so brown.
“Why’d you do that, Wendy?” Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, playfully chided.
Woolford skillfully piloted the conversation into a lesson on sediment pollution, asking the group what they think the dirt carries with it when it washes off the landscape and into local waters.
“When it storms and water runs off, what goes with it?” Woolford asked, pointing to the weeks of wet weather that had contributed additional stormwater to the system.
Fertilizer, oil and animal manure were among the answers. During heavy storms, these and other pollutants careen off sidewalks and parking lots into the nearest water body and eventually, the Bay.
For Kathy Wing von Bredow, a landscape architect at Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, stormwater is something she thinks about every day while designing parks and other projects.
Arlington’s latest stormwater regulations require any land-disturbing activity — including a new park — to be designed to absorb a certain amount of stormwater. Getting on a boat, von Bredow said, is a reminder of why that matters.
Ken Elston, a council member for the city of Manassas, brought his family with him on the boat for a chance to get on the waterway that is impacted by stormwater decisions made 30 miles away.
Nearby municipalities like Alexandria and Manassas are in in the middle of costly, multi-year efforts to address their stormwater pollution, so the CBF invited one official who enacts the policies that are passed onto the boat tour as well.
“We’re taking on billion-dollar projects just to help the stormwater match up to what wastewater treatment plants have already done to remove nitrogen and phosphorous,” explained Karen Pallansch, CEO of Alexandria Renew Enterprises, a water treatment facility.
Pallansch has gotten some practice going before General Assembly committees over the last year after taking on an uphill project to reduce overflows from the city’s combined sewer system by 2025.
In 2017, legislators voted to speed up the city’s timeline for curtailing the amount of rain-diluted waste pouring untreated from its antiquated sewer system.
Environmentalists had long complained the work was not being done quickly enough, but Alexandria officials contended that construction would be complicated and best carried out over decades.
After the General Assembly forced their hand, the city made a deal with Alexandria Renew to take on an expedited project that will use underground tunnels to funnel stormwater to the treatment plant before it is released to the river’s tributaries.
Pallansch said on the boat that it was “thanks to all of you” — referring to state grants that legislators on board may have helped to garner — that the city was able to complete its first project and meet wastewater pollution goals more quickly than required. And the city will be returning during the next session to ask for more funds for the costly combined stormwater-sewage reduction work now at hand.
“We’re very excited, with a little trepidation around the program, because we have to do it by 2025,” Pallansch said.
Some on the boat were eager to prove themselves champions of the Bay, even if they were new to the topics being covered.
After netting a couple-dozen of the Potomac’s fish — some natives, some not-from-here species like blue catfish — Capt. Eric Marshall, the boat’s skipper, sorted them into oxygenated water bins.
But, before he let anyone touch the fish, he required the passengers to hold their breath for nearly a minute. He wanted them to understand what a fish out of water might feel like if they held it in their hands too long. Once given the all clear, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, didn’t hesitate to dip her aqua-blue nails into the Potomac water.
“I was recently elected, but my predecessor was a Bay supporter,” said Guzman, who defeated eight-term incumbent Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican who also served on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, in the fall election. “I’m here just because I want them to know that they still have an ally.”