A Life of Quality
Robbi Savage - Rivanna Conservation Alliance
Rivanna Conservation Alliance
Current Issue
A Life of Quality

After nearly three decades working on Capitol Hill representing the 50 states’ chief clean water officials, I moved to a small country town to take over the administration of a local watershed conservation group — a position I now leave. Having worked at the federal, state, and corporate levels, it was an obvious next step — bringing my environmental career full circle. Or to use another metaphor, going from little fish in a big ocean to big fish in a little stream. But I came to the same perspective on water quality problems even though I was viewing many of the same issues with a different focus.

At the beginning, I was a very small fish. I joined the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency’s water office just after the enactment of the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972 — what everyone now calls the Clean Water Act. It was an exciting time to be at EPA in those early years; the agency’s mission was clear, the leadership was seasoned, the employees were dedicated, and program funding was plentiful. I felt inspired by the sense of mission from Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus down to the lowly secretarial level, where I started my career. That wasn’t uncommon for women of that era.

But just six years later, I was named executive director of the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, and as such became the principal representative in Washington of officials charged with implementing the CWA. In that position, I was invited to testify before Congress more than one hundred times on topics ranging from enforcement to funding, groundwater, nonpoint sources, pretreatment, stormwater, Total Maximum Daily Loads, and wetlands. I remember testifying three times on a single day on groundwater. And, during the debate on what became the CWA’s 1987 amendments, I practically lived on the Hill. What a gift to work with the environmental greats, especially at a time when congressional Democrats and Republicans worked together for the good of the country.

The first floor debate I watched was on the meaning of “navigable waterways” and “waters of the United States,” to this day an area of controversy. I was in the Senate Gallery watching Maine Democrat Edmund Muskie and New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici engage in an intense argument about ephemeral streams. I was struck by the respectful tone and empathy as Muskie, from a water rich state, and Domenici, from an arid state, each from a different party, were trying to convince the other on what now seems to have been the beginning of the national debate on the geographic reach of the law. Nearly 30 years later I was there for the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in Rapanos v. United States, which further defined navigable waters — or actually further muddied the waters.

A career-changing event at ASIWPCA was meeting with David Stockman, the former congressman and then the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Not long after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration,
Utah Governor Scott Matheson and I met in Stockman’s office to discuss state funding priorities. Stockman announced that by the end of President Reagan’s presidency the construction grants programs for clean water facilities would be no more. Stockman looked up at Matheson, who chaired the Water Committee of the National Governors’ Association, and then at me to emphasize that we could let this happen or we could find a way through the political impasse. “Your choice,” Stockman said.

It was less than 10 years since Congress provided $5 billion in annual grant funding for the construction of wastewater treatment facilities — and now we were being told that President Reagan intended to kill this critical national program. In response, Matheson formed a working group of senior state officials to identify a series of options to protect, restructure, or remake the program. I was asked by the governor to organize and staff the meetings.

The 1981 Municipal Wastewater Treatment Construction Grants Amendments, passed at virtually the last moments of the session, made it clear that Stockman’s threat was real and the process of eliminating the grants had begun. Congress reduced annual funding by more than half and limited eligible funding categories to only sewage plants and interceptor systems. Reserve capacity, to accommodate population growth, was completely eliminated — foolishly, in my view.

The death knell for the grant program would come with the 1987 amendments to the CWA, but the state and local government groups (having coordinated with EPA) were ready with legislative language for what became the State Revolving Loan Fund, still operating to this day. The proposed legislation was designed to create a transition from federally funded grants to loans at favorable interest rates. The SRLF would phase in gradually by reducing grants and at the same time providing federal seed money for state-administered loans to local governments

In addition to sewage treatment, stormwater — rainwater runoff from industrial and municipal facilities — was also of concern during the 1980s because it had not specifically been addressed in the original legislation. The scope of the stormwater problem was huge, controls were difficult to implement, management systems were complex, and adequate funds were not available. For these reasons, stormwater controls were not being systematically permitted under the CWA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. A number of citizen suits against EPA followed. These suits for not enforcing the act led to the crafting of legislative language for industrial stormwater dischargers and municipal separate storm sewer systems to obtain permits.

The sheer magnitude of the problem and the workload associated with issuing permits was a major concern for cities, counties, and other organizations. The National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties were particularly skeptical that Congress would provide funding to cover the costs of implementation. These concerns were prescient, because the grant program included in the initial amendment was deleted during the congressional conference committee as it considered the 1987 amendments.

In an unusual move, Senator John Chafee (R-RI) and Representative Bob Roe (D-NJ), committee chair and vice chair, invited me to serve as a technical resource to represent the states as the committee considered the State Revolving Loan Fund; the stormwater control and management program; Total Maximum Daily Load allocations; wetlands conservation; and new authorities for treating tribes as states for the purposes of the act.

During the proceedings and much to our surprise, EPA and ASIWPCA were asked to merge the House and Senate stormwater language. The acting assistant administrator for water, Rebecca Hanmer, and I convened a small group of attorneys to work through the night to create the stormwater language that is included in the 1987 amendments.

The conference committee came to agreement on a full reauthorization package, and it was sent back to the House and Senate for what was expected would be the last floor vote. On November 6, 1986, Congress unanimously approved the legislation and sent it to President Reagan for his signature. But President Reagan decided not to act and the Congress was not in session — the result was a pocket veto, which cannot be overturned by a super majority.

In response, Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) convened a small group to develop a strategy to ensure that the vetoed bill would be the first action of the 100th Congress. The Water Quality Renewal Act was introduced as HR 1 and as Senate 1, which combined sailed through and was sent to the president. Once again he vetoed the bill, citing the cost of the new SRLF and governmental jurisdiction issues. On the latter, he meant the federal government should not pay for the remediation of nonpoint source pollution, stormwater management, and achievement of TMDLs of pollutants entering waterbodies.

On February 4, the Congress voted to override Reagan’s veto, and the Water Quality Renewal Act of 1987 became law. Again I sat in the Senate Gallery, this time with Rebecca, to watch Congress pass the law. My vocal enthusiasm as the result was announced was met with the rap of the gavel and the admonishment, “Order in the chambers.” But, as my mother used to say, “Robbi Jean, you are witnessing history in the making,” so I signalled the important event with a loud shout.

Stormwater and TMDLs have followed me throughout my career. In 2006, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, to take over the reins of the Rivanna Conservation Society (now Alliance), a small citizens organization that promotes conservation in the watershed, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. In that position, I participated in the technical advisory committees for the city of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County. These groups helped designed the local programs and the use of a stormwater utility.

Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation was initially responsible for the stormwater program, but the program was moved to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in 2013. This complicated the implementation of the stormwater program at the state and local levels because the commonwealth was requiring draft codes or ordinances for the program, with permitting authorities including the city, the county, and the University of Virginia. Based on the differences in population, community size, and age of the stormwater infrastructure, the program was being handled differently in each of the four primary jurisdictions within the Rivanna watershed, and because the initial legislative focus was on large stormwater discharges, such as cities with over 350,000 population, the smaller discharges such as Charlottesville and Albemarle had several years to create their programs.

It should be obvious that I need to highlight the important role of nonprofit organizations in designing and implementing stormwater programs — and the CWA generally. We took advantage of the time provided to implement stormwater controls. RCA provided input on legislation, regulations, and policies, supported funding for development of best management practices, and served on local government advisory committees, meanwhile tracking the success and pace of local stormwater programs and educating the public. RCA along with the Southern Environmental Law Center and UVA’s Conservation and Environmental Law Center engaged in a joint project to analyze and make recommendations for the improvement of the stormwater codes and ordinances. These recommendations were, for the most part, implemented by the localities.

At RCA, I led staff scientists who, with a team of dedicated volunteers, monitor 65 water-quality sites at the highest certified level for bacteria (e coli) and benthic macroinvertebrates (aquatic bugs). RCA is the only nonprofit to be certified at VA Level III, which means that government officials can, without follow-up, use RCA data to develop TMDLs for water-quality standards and also for related Section 305(b) reports to Congress. To monitor physical parameters, RCA has two River Stewards paddle the Rivanna weekly to monitor conditions, clean up trash, and help other paddlers as needed. We also conduct educational programs and workshops and regularly engage the community in World Water Monitoring Day, a program I created in 2002. That was the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and the Year of Clean Water. Philip Cousteau’s Earth Echo International now manages the monitoring program, which delights me.

After a career of 45 years, I have come to understand that the goals of legislation, regulations, and related policies can only be achieved with the involvement of all levels of government and the participation of interested and affected groups and individuals. I have seen this process at the federal level and the state level. Central Virginia and the Rivanna River watershed provide a microcosm of how this process can work at the local level. Federal, state, and regional officials are paying attention to the work of our alliance and similar watershed-protection groups around the country. TEF

TESTIMONY ❧ I started at EPA just after the Clean Water Act was passed and have helped to implement it at the federal and state levels ever since. Now retiring as executive director of the Rivanna Conservation Alliance in central Virginia, I have come to realize that government policymakers can learn a lot by studying solutions worked out at the watershed level.

Green Infrastructure for Chesapeake Stormwater Management: Legal Tools for Climate Resilient Siting
Cynthia R. Harris & James McElfish
Date Released
August 2017
Green Infrastructure for Chesapeake Stormwater Management: Legal Tools for Clima

One of the greatest impacts of climate change on the Chesapeake Bay watershed will be stormwater management. The Chesapeake region is in the position to take national leadership on the issue of climate change impacts to our vulnerable coastal communities. Rather than resorting to retreat, or relying on conventional stormwater strategies already proving ineffective, the people of Maryland and Virginia have an opportunity to demonstrate their resiliency in the face of change.

Mid-Atlantic States Join Forces to Advance Offshore Wind Energy
June 2013

(Washington, DC) — In coordination with the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) has released A Guide to State Management of Offshore Wind Energy in the Mid-Atlantic Region. The guide provides an overview of the issues affecting offshore wind energy projects in the region and identifies the basic elements of state authority to address resource concerns and competing uses such as navigation and fishing.