As I look back over the 50 years of our history, I realize we’ve had some great game changers and influencers work at the Alliance. This month, as we’re approaching fall, when we celebrate our achievements and partners at the Taste, it’s a good time to hear from some of those folks. I sat down with The Nature Conservancy’s Andy Lacatell, Virginia Chesapeake Bay Program Director. Andy has been working in the Chesapeake Bay world for a little over 30 years. “I like to tell people that I’ve really only moved up three floors in that time.” Andy started his career at the Alliance back in 1990, working in the same office building he works in now. While attending the University of Richmond, Andy had a professor of Environmental Sociology, Reber Dunkel, who connected Andy with the Alliance for an internship.

And, it just so happens that I had Andy as an advisor while pursuing my degree from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Environmental Studies, and he connected me with the Alliance for an internship as well, exactly ten years later. I became an intern, then an employee, and advanced my career quickly due to the depth of experience I gained in those first two years working at the Alliance.

Andy’s experience has been similar. He expressed gratitude for being part of the Alliance because of the conservation heroes he got to work with and the opportunities he had to grow his career. “The Alliance has always hired interesting people and people that you are glad that you met in your life and on your career path along the way,” Andy said, referring to former Alliance staff members.

Andy became one of those interesting staff members as he kicked off his career. “We did everything from putting up signs, organizing outreach events, water quality monitoring – things that are so fundamental to the way we do Chesapeake Bay protection and restoration now. I was fortunate to be part of all that early on.”

While Andy was involved in many different aspects of the Alliance’s work, the biggest takeaway for him and what he is still working on today is water quality. Andy’s first project was working on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, writing a white paper on nutrient pollution. “At that time, I didn’t know what that was. I wasn’t up to speed on what nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment were and their impacts. But, as I dug into that white paper and visited the watershed, I learned how poultry farms, development, and land management impacted water quality.” Andy soon realized that water quality was one of the main drivers for why we are working on the health of the Bay and that nutrient pollution was one of our biggest challenges.

30 years later, we have a much better understanding of the sources of pollution affecting the Bay and have made significant progress. That being said, we still have a lot of work to do. “That’s one takeaway over my career – a lot of times, we want an instantaneous, quick change. But things in the environment don’t change overnight. I take some comfort in the fact that even though we have a long way to go, we’ve come a long way over those years.”

Andy is hopeful about the future health of the Bay because of the many multifaceted restoration projects that are being implemented, such as building oyster reefs and planting forest buffers. Many organizations are doing great work, but not all are working the way the Alliance does with the corporate community.  “It’s not productive to have good vs. evil. The Alliance has done a nice job of recognizing that and building a network of business partners and engaging them in the important restoration work that must be done.”

“Everybody has a place and is needed to keep Chesapeake Bay restoration moving forward.” Along with the Alliance and The Nature Conservancy, there are many other organizations fighting to restore the Bay. Andy believes that all of these organizations are essential in their own way. “So many organizations work in the Chesapeake Bay, and everyone has a role to play. We need all of these organizations to work on all of these issues we have in the Bay.” He explains that while we’ve identified many problems, we have also identified strategies and solutions to solve them. We need all these partners to help implement these strategies. “It takes a collective village.” His thoughts remind me of a saying a colleague of mine used to say, “Restoring the Bay is going to take everything, by everyone, everywhere.”

Andy grew up on the ocean in Massachusetts, just a short walk from the beach. He loved fishing and canoeing with his father and learned to love the beach with his mother. However, he feels like he took that for granted while he was growing up. It wasn’t until he started at the Alliance and met other people who cared about the environment and our natural resources that he realized how fortunate he was. “It’s literally the landscape in which we live, play, and work. It benefits us all to work together to make it healthier.”

Andy joined TNC in 2001, devoting much of his time to land protection initiatives and large-scale oyster restoration projects. Shellfish populations are one of the most degraded natural communities on the planet. Bringing oysters back to the Chesapeake Bay is helping to set a standard that is being followed globally, in Australia and New Zealand, China, and Europe.

In addition to large scale projects restoring oyster reefs in Virginia’s Piankatank River, Andy has been involved in protecting farms, forests, and marshes that have been added to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge and creating state forests in Dragon Run, all to protect and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.