How creating educational and environmental opportunities for local elected officials can have a positive effect on local communities.

Your local elected officials are neighbors who were voted into office with a willingness to be civil stewards. They are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day, long-term functions of our communities, including the development and maintenance of streets, sewers, emergency services, parks, and more. Their primary responsibility, however, is listening to and acting upon the desires of constituents like yourself!

Whether you frequent the outdoors or not, every resident needs access to clean water. It is vital for what we consume, the areas we play, and the ecosystem we need. However, threats to clean water such as flooding, stormwater, or pollution, to name a few, may not always make it to the priority lists of our local decision-makers, especially while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, these concerns can evolve in complexity much faster than it takes our local leaders to address and find a solution during their terms.

With that in mind, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, in partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), coordinated an array of hands-on experiential learning opportunities called the Wandering Waterways series. This effort is designed for local government leaders to build relationships with one another and increase their commitment to undertaking actions that protect and restore both their communities and the Chesapeake Bay watershed region. To do this, local elected officials travel from one part of the Bay region to a contrasting area to learn of differing local perspectives and gain a broader understanding of decisions made or considered around these issues. 

Learn more about the Wandering Waterways events through the years below:

Virginia (Fall 2019)

In partnership with the Northern Neck Planning District Commission, Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, and the Northern Neck Tourism Commission with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Kicking off the series, the LGAC-hosted Wandering Virginia’s Waterways tour took local decision-makers from inland Virginia to the coastlines. Before arriving at the Chesapeake Bay on the Northern Neck peninsula, local elected officials toured sites along the shores of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and connected with representatives from coastal communities.

Beginning on the river banks, local officials explored the benefits of living shorelines and their ability to withstand erosion, reduce the impacts of flooding, absorb harmful nutrients, and create natural habitats. They stopped by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and the Rappahannock Oyster Company to view nurturing processes and also got out onto the water to observe oyster harvest first-hand. While fish and oysters are among regional favorites, and an economic driver for many of Virginia’s riverfront communities, local government participants also deepened their awareness of what it means to protect their habitats including the necessity for oyster reef restoration and maintenance of salinity levels in local waters. 

Elected official attendees of coastal communities were encouraged to share their perspectives with their neighbors upstream to gain a common understanding of how water conservation is connected. Together they also listened to the stories of local fishermen, businesses-owners, and landowners to broaden their insight into the people who rely on their local rivers to support not only their families but the communities that surround them.

Participants of the Wandering Virginia's Waterways tour, 2019. Photo provided by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Participants of the Wandering Virginia’s Waterways tour, 2019. Photo provided by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (Spring 2020)

In partnership with the University of Maryland’s Environmental Finance Center, Maryland Municipal League, Pennsylvania Association of Boroughs, and Virginia Municipal League, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Environmental Endowment

As many of us adapted to a virtual environment in the wake of the pandemic, so did the Wandering Waterways series. This pivot, however, allowed for the project to broaden its reach throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

With record-breaking rainfall experienced in many areas of the Bay region, the effects of stormwater, or the rainwater that flows over impervious surfaces like rooftops, roads, or parking lots, grew. Stormwater plays a large part in transporting various forms of pollution to our local waterways. For communities that neighbor coastal waters, stormwater has a heavy impact on tidal flooding as well.

Seeking Stormwater Solutions: Getting the MOST for Local Leaders invited local elected officials of river and coastal communities within Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to join the Municipal Online Stormwater Training (MOST) Center for a multi-part interactive training course on stormwater. During the educational sessions, participants also discussed the challenges of stormwater-related flooding, including its effect on residential neighborhoods, local businesses, green spaces, and overall ecosystem health. 

Local officials of each state cohort worked together to identify solutions to stormwater through community planning, infrastructure management, and future collaboration across municipal lines. To keep the momentum going, they also connected with local experts who could assist their communities with moving forward on the solutions addressed. 

Pennsylvania (Fall 2021)

With funding from the Campbell Foundation

Sitting down for breakfast in Lancaster, alongside the beautiful Susquehanna River, borough, city, county, and township officials gathered for a discussion on the importance of their local streams. 

While taking in the rich landscape of the historic riverfront park and trail site within the city, local leaders identified what conservation of waterways looked like to them. Facilitated by LGAC, local officials examined the value local streams contribute to their communities but questioned how these waters have changed over time and what impact flooding or stormwater had on those changes.

Finding solutions to address watershed health that could simultaneously serve their residents as well as their environments, the attending elected officials of the Lancaster Breakfast discussed economic incentives behind the protection of local water resources. They discovered the need for multi-municipal collaboration to reduce costs, access state/federal funds, and increase the effectiveness of projects for flood mitigation and meeting water quality goals. Gaining further insight into the challenges and opportunities around clean water issues in nearby counties and boroughs, elected officials identified strategies for green infrastructure to include planting trees to serve as stream buffers and best practices for agriculture sustainability to reference in the future.

Wandering Waterways: What Local Officials Took Home

“We need more conversations like this.” mentioned a Pennsylvania council member as they exited the Lancaster Breakfast event with their colleague. 

The idea of ‘conversations’ between elected officials may seem daunting to many, but these discussions can also be a mark of collaboration. Attending the 2019 pilot, Councilmember George Hirschmann of Harrisonburg, Virginia, offered his reflections stating, “[Wandering Virginia’s Waterways] provided an experience to learn how many people are involved in keeping an eye on the environment, just how sensitive it is, and how much we depend on it from the wetlands to the watermen.” He continued by saying, “ I did not know about [the coastal environment] to this magnitude, and I am not sure how impactful we can be in Harrisonburg, but every little bit we do can have an impact.”

From collaboration to implementation, the ability to connect the dots between information shared by conservation experts and real-world experiences examined by their peers also left many local government attendees inspired to address similar barriers within their community. “Objective one was to listen and learn from other municipalities who are faced with similar obstacles and how they have overcome those issues, and objective two was to learn of other opportunities for assistance on implementing stormwater solutions,” said Planning and Zoning Officer, Kymberly Kudla of St. Michaels, Maryland. From her connections made through the Seeking Stormwater Solutions sessions, Kudla identified resources to begin an additional installation of green infrastructure in the seaside town. 

Oxford Borough Councilmember Kathryn Cloyd, who also attended the virtual sessions, continued to reinforce the Pennsylvania borough’s commitment to incorporating green infrastructure practices as well. With the help of Councilmember Cloyd, the borough has made much headway revisiting their community plans and installing several rain gardens and buffers to help filter pollution from exiting into the multiple watersheds that run through their municipality.

What’s next for the series?

Since its 2019 pilot, the local government team at the Alliance has been inspired to continue the Wandering Waterways series around the watershed. We have heard from local leaders that the opportunity to collaborate, learn from environmental experts, and experience both the challenges and the solutions of clean water has been invaluable.

This winter, we look forward to inviting Maryland officials for a cup of hot chocolate and the chance to learn about the benefits of trees at the Jugs Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Prince George’s County. In 2022 we will extend the hands-on opportunity to discover clean water practices from Baltimore’s bustling inner harbor to the rural docks of St. Michaels.

We plan to resume the Wandering Waterways series in central Pennsylvania and Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 2022 as well! We will also pilot the series in Delaware, with officials touring select redevelopment sites near the Nanticoke River.

The Alliance will continue to seek opportunities to tour local priorities in the headwater states with day trips in New York (Fall 2022) and West Virginia (Spring 2023). 

Stay tuned!