Making of a Watershed Watchdog

Urban Water Management Conference keynoter Tom Schueler shares his inspirations and aspirations as a champion of watershed protection.

by Angela Godwin

Urban Water Management Conference keynoter Tom Schueler shares his inspirations and aspirations as a champion of watershed protection.

When Tom Schueler started his first “real job” 25 years ago with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, he couldn’t have predicted where it would take him. Tasked with writing up the report from the Council’s nationwide urban runoff project, a huge monitoring effort analyzing the quality of stormwater runoff and the performance and cost-effectiveness of stormwater practices, Schueler got a crash course on stormwater basics.

For the next 10 years, Schueler remained at the Council, focusing on stormwater design issues and working on restoration of the highly urban Anacostia watershed.

“I was doing work on wetland restoration, stream restoration, and retrofitting, trying to organize a large number of agencies and professionals around that topic,” Schueler recalled.

“One thing I remember from that era is a real strong belief about how difficult it was to fix something that was broken,” said Schueler. “It made me think instead of a more preventative approach.”

It made sense, Schueler said, to do things right when land was first being developed. That, and the lack of an organization at the national level that was providing communities and practitioners with good guidance on watershed protection, watershed restoration, and stormwater management techniques, inspired Schueler to found the Center for Watershed Protection in 1992.

The Center is an objective, science-based not-for-profit organization that has played an influential role in getting local communities, states and even federal agencies to take a more implementation-oriented approach to land development.

“You never know when you do something like that whether it’s a niche that the world really wants,” said Schueler, “but throughout the country there’s been a continuing strong interest in those topics.”

While at the Center, Schueler was the editor of Watershed Protection Techniques, a journal that summarized the literature on various stormwater techniques.

“One of the first articles I wrote,” said Schueler, “was on the importance of impervious cover, in terms of it being a model to predict future stream quality as well as a good organizing principle for watershed management and stormwater management.”

It doesn’t take very much land development to significantly degrade streams, small estuaries and wetlands, Schueler said. It was a major element of the Center’s work, and has become an important environmental indicator for watershed planning.

In 2006, Schueler felt a desire to focus on watershed protection in a more geographically specific way.

“I was driving to a meeting in northern Virginia,” he recalled. “Looking out and seeing that, despite all the new science and engineering, there was still a lack of implementation of good practices that could protect the streams in Chesapeake Bay, I realized it was time to advocate a little more forcefully for improved regulations, permits, staffing, and financing to protect our legacy of streams and wetlands.”

The idea for the Chesapeake Stormwater Network was born.

Since September 2007, Schueler has been working diligently with Chesapeake Bay programs and neighboring states to develop strategies to implement environmental site design in a more rapid way. Schueler plans to create a virtual network of about 5000 people in the Bay watershed that are involved in some form with stormwater and site planning.

“The stormwater design community often lacks a professional identity and doesn’t share a lot of information back and forth,” Schueler said. “My goal is to create an electronic community so that we can have a better sense of professional identity and improve the quality of our practice.

“Chesapeake has been my home watershed for almost 40 years now and I think it’s particularly important place to get started.”

The relentless rates of growth and development have become a major threat to the health of the Bay. Schueler estimates that as many as 10,000 miles of its 100,000 stream miles have already been degraded.

“So it’s a pretty urgent problem to try to tackle,” he said

The Chesapeake Stormwater Network will be, first and foremost, an electronic communication network: E-newsletters, blogs, and a stormwater wiki will be part of the effort to develop better design specification for water practices throughout the Bay and utilize the knowledge of experienced design engineers and plan reviewers to “develop a better mousetrap.”

Another goal of the organization is to put together a baywide stormwater action strategy for more research, training, and financial support across the bay. In addition, Schueler is working in each state in the watershed to provide input on stormwater regulations, manuals and permits.

Although the project is an ambitious one – the watershed comprises 1,300 different communities in seven states – Schueler is confident.

“Almost all of the states in the area are reevaluating their stormwater regulations and companion stormwater design manuals,” he said. “This is a really good opportunity to implement more stringent design criteria to effectively solve the problem.

“Trying to set some stringent runoff reduction requirements and nutrient removal reduction requirements at individual sites is a key element of what I’m trying to accomplish.

“Progress is incremental,” Schueler said, “so it’s very gratifying to see such a strong and capable community of people working to protect the environment.”

Editor’s note:

Tom Schueler will deliver the keynote address at Urban Water Management 2008, to be held March 31-April 2 in Louisville, KY. For more information or to register, visit:

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