Project Tours

A Day in the Life of a Congressman

It started with a Congressional office visit and a meeting with veteran staffer Brent Robinson. Brent has worked for Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA) since he won a special election in 2007. 

As I do in many Congressional visits, I talked about the importance of funding the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program and also the Chesapeake Stewardship Grants that are funded by the Program. I provide a list of these on-the-ground restoration projects for each state and ask if the staff or the Member of Congress would like to see how these funds have been used in their district.  That question, posed several months ago, led to the June 1 tour for Congressman Wittman in Virginia’s 1st Congressional District.

The final agenda settled on visiting two sites – the first, a stormwater remediation project on a severely eroded headwater stream, and the second, a tour by boat of a restored oyster reef as part of a larger restoration of Urbanna Creek.

First, there is some important stuff to know about Congressman Rob Wittman. His political career began in local government in Montross and Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck. But his professional career included a long stint as an environmental health specialist with the Virginia Department of Health and as the Field Director for Virginia’s Division of Shellfish Sanitation. He has forgotten more facts about oysters and the ecology of the Chesapeake than I ever knew.

The tour was organized by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which administers the Chesapeake Stewardship Grants (both the Small Watershed Grants and the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants).

Our first site visit was adjacent to a busy road outside of downtown Kilmarnock – a quaint little town on the Northern Neck. We gathered just off the main road at 8:30 a.m. and awaited the Congressman’s arrival. The group included a number of local elected officials from the Town and the County and folks from the Army Corps of Engineers, soil and water conservation district, Center for Watershed Protection, Friends of the Rapphannock and Ecosystem Services (the company leading a lot of the project work). We also had Jake Reilly and Mele Williams with NFWF and Kristen Saacke Blunk who coordinated the tours, Bill Street, Ex. Director of the James River Association and co-chair of the Choose Clean Water Coalition – and myself, who hates to pass up a boat ride.

Congressman Wittman pulled up in his pickup truck with the license plates that read, “cobia”. Anyone who knows the Congressman or has been in his DC office, knows that this is a man who is serious about fish and fishing – something I can relate to. I greeted the Congressman and had a brief discussion about the most important topic of the day – his cobia fishing trip over the weekend where he sight casted to cobia, with his smallest fish of the day weighing 62 pounds. These are the best eating fish in the Chesapeake (in my humble opinion) that unfortunately rarely make it far enough up the Bay to my neck of the woods near Annapolis.

We did some quick intros and then walked to the project site, where construction had not yet started. We walked a bit downstream to view the extremely incised and collapsing stream – with 10-20 foot drops to the dry streambed. In response to a question about which regulatory requirements this project would meet for the Town, the project director gave an incisive response – there was no state or federal requirement or credit for the Town to do this project. It was decided that this was the right thing to do and would stop a significant amount of sediment and nutrient pollution from moving downstream into the Corrotoman River. The Town wanted to lead by example. And they have.

We then shuttled over the Rappahannock River to Christchurch School where we met another group of folks involved with extensive restoration efforts on Urbanna Creek. We were greeted by Jeb Byers, the Headmaster of the school, who was gracious enough to provide vans to shuttle us to the marina to meet a boat that they also provided, so we could visit the oyster reef restoration component of the project in the Town of Urbanna on the Middle Peninsula. There were a number of students  who worked on the project, Paula Jasinski, who coordinated the project and also VA Delegate Keith Hodges (R-98th District), who represents the area and lives in Urbanna.

We boarded the boat to look at a couple of restoration sites, and to also learn about water quality improvements already noticeable in Urbanna Creek. Someone brought aboard a few large oysters from the reef we were about to see and handed one to the Congressman, who proceeded to examine the mollusk and quickly determine its age and overall good health. Any other Member of Congress would have been asking for cocktail sauce, but Congressman Wittman wanted to know more about the health of the oyster reefs and their impact on the watershed.

I spoke to the Congressman about the importance of the Chesapeake Stewardship Grants and our concern about ensuring that Congress continues to fund them. Congressman Wittman noted that he was well aware of the grant program – in fact, when he was on the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors they applied for and received a Small Watershed Grant. He agreed that the grants were a great investment and that he would do what he could to see to it that the House included language to support the grant program, as they have done for a number of years. We also spoke briefly about the Farm Bill and how the Chesapeake has been getting shortchanged in conservation money.

I also spoke with Delegate Hodges for the first time, and was very impressed with his knowledge of the Bay and its issues as well as his concern for his district. He recognized the enormous economic challenges for the region but spoke about the green economy – the water and other assets the region had to sustain a great quality of life and to also bolster the economy.

It was another good day in a great and unique part of the Chesapeake region – and we got to spend it with people who are doing great work for their communities and ultimately for the Bay. And I got to have grilled cobia for dinner the night before – quite delicious.

My Day with Congressman Glenn "GT" Thompson

The general perception by most is that the state of politics in America has become very polarized and most issues have devolved into “us vs. them”.  That perception is no different when it comes to clean water issues throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

There are, however, areas where common ground can be found on most issues if you look hard enough and both sides listen to each other. These areas are not as easy to find as they were 5, 10 or 20 years ago, but they are still there if people are willing to look.

A case in point occurred just a couple of weeks ago with Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Republican representing the 5th Congressional District in Pennsylvania. The 5th District is larger than the state of Vermont and a very large chunk of it is in the Susquehanna/Chesapeake watershed.

Congressman Thompson - he goes by “GT” - chairs the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee. He is a conservative representing a very rural and conservative district, and he has often voted on the other side of issues important to the Coalition, such as voting for riders to stop the Chesapeake Bay TMDL or bills to stop the Clean Water Rule. But that does not mean he doesn’t care at all about clean water.

As the Federal Affairs contractor for the Coalition, I have always believed that you need to talk to all sides and keep a dialogue open, trying to find common ground. This means talking to Republicans and Democrats in Congress – that was true when the Democrats controlled the House and/or the Senate, and is especially true now that the Republicans control both houses of Congress. Ignoring the majority party is generally not a good legislative strategy.

My day with GT began with a Hill visit to his office back in April. We had several Coalition members who traveled to DC from PA for a day on the Hill meeting with House and Senate offices of the PA delegation. One of our goals was to get support for funding (“appropriations”) a couple of key programs – the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program, and the Chesapeake Stewardship Grants that come from that Program. The two Stewardship Grant programs are the Chesapeake Small Watershed Grants and the Nutrient and Sediment Reduction grants.

When making a pitch for the Congressman to support these programs, his staff interrupted, and told us that GT strongly supported this funding and had already made a request to the House Appropriations Committee for full funding. It was a great opportunity to declare victory without having done anything, and so I did. I asked the staffer if he or the Congressman would be interested in touring some sites in the 5th District that were funded through the grant programs. He said “absolutely”.

The Chesapeake Stewardship Grants, funded by EPA, are currently administered by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).  I contacted NFWF to arrange a tour for the Congressman - after a bit of back and forth, it was decided to do the tour in early October and to focus on projects in Centre County – which is GT’s home.

Since the Congressman chairs an Agriculture Subcommittee, NFWF opted to focus on farm-based restoration and protection projects. NFWF worked with the ClearWater Conservancy, a non-profit grant recipient, and Choose Clean Water Coalition member, that is based in State College, in Centre County.  We had the Congressman for a full five hours, from 9 a.m. through 2 p.m. He and his office were not concerned about getting media on the tour, he was just interested in seeing the projects and talking to private landowners about how they liked what was done on their land.

The Congressman arrived with one district office staff person and the seven person tour began. We went to five different restoration sites, all of them on farmland. Some were very agriculture focused, constructing manure containment facilities, fencing and new water supplies to enable livestock exclusion from streams. Others were riparian forest buffers and streambank restoration for local water quality and flood control. All of the landowners we met were very pleased with their finished projects and also with everything that was necessary to get them done.

Congressman Thompson seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day. He’s a soft-spoken man, but not shy, which was evident by his knowing virtually everyone we met by name. And, of course, they all knew GT. It was a great example of retail politics with the Congressman meeting constituents and asking a lot of questions about projects that were completed with federal funds that he helped to obtain. And he was also well aware of the environmental and downstream benefits of all of these projects.

No deals or promises were made by anyone during the day, but we all shared a common goal of trying to get help for landowners who want to do the right thing but are stretched very thin in both time and money. These were great projects that in some places are already making a noticeable difference in local water quality and will be critical to building support for restoration throughout our region.

Folks in Centre County, PA, don’t talk too much about Chesapeake Bay, but they do talk about local streams that have had native brook trout return; they talk about streams that are not flooding as much as they did before their shorelines were stabilized and forested buffers took root on the shoreline; and they talk about how EPA funds actually helped their farms function better and improved their local environment and quality of life.