by Jake Solyst
January 14, 2021
In his 12 years as the deputy director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, Jim Edward, who retired in December, corralled a wide variety of people around the protection of the Bay.
He lead a staff of scientists, policy makers and project leaders at the Chesapeake Bay Program Office. He collaborated with governors of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia and the mayor of Washington D.C. Even a U.S. President committed himself to a healthier watershed during Jim’s tenure.
It was during his first year on the job in 2009 when Jim orchestrated a stronger relationship with the White House, recognizing an opportunity to align the goals of federal agencies with those of the Chesapeake Bay Program.
“When I started [at the Bay Program], I asked if we’ve ever written a presidential executive order, and they said no,” Jim recalls. “I think they were surprised that I even asked. So, I said, ‘I know how to do it—let’s write one!’”
Federal agencies such as the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had already been involved with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s restoration work, but an executive order signed by the President would foster greater collaboration with those agencies and give Bay conservationists a bigger national voice.
Fortunately, Jim had plenty of experience coordinating with government agencies due to his long and diverse career working for the Environmental Protection Agency and had even written two other presidential executive orders. With the go-ahead from his new bosses, Jim wrote an executive order for President Obama that called for broader federal agency support in restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.
“It was the first executive order that Obama signed,” Jim said. For the last 12 years, the federal agencies addressed in the order have been committed Bay Program partners.
The executive order was just the first in a series of pivotal achievements that benefited from Jim’s leadership. In the coming years he would guide the development of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, and most recently the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Statement. Jim’s 12-year run as the deputy director for the Bay Program was the longest of anyone in that role. In retirement he leaves behind a legacy of passion, kindness and a dedication to the Chesapeake Bay that makes the partnership stronger than when he found it.
Strengthening the Chesapeake Bay’s largest partnership
As acting director of the Bay Program from May 2010 to August 2011, Jim oversaw the development of the monumental pollution reduction strategy we now know as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or Bay TMDL.
The Bay TMDL establishes the amount of pollution that the Chesapeake Bay can hold, while still being considered healthy. Each of the watershed jurisdictions—Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—were asked to reduce a unique amount of pollution. The Bay TMDL calls for each to have the practices in place to reduce their specified amount of pollution by 2025. As acting director, Jim was the one coordinating this demanding, cross-state challenge.
“It’s really complicated to do a TMDL and it’s really hard to keep on schedule when you’re trying to develop a model that’s created and used through a partnership and not just through an individual,” said Carin Bisland, partnership and accountability branch chief at the Bay Program.
By the end of 2010, the Bay TMDL was formally put into place, and the six participating states and D.C. continue to work towards meeting their pollution limits today.
“It’s sort of like raising a family,” Jim said. “Everyone has different issues, capabilities, skills, problems and challenges. You need to devise approaches that accommodate those differences while keeping a level of fairness.”
It was also Jim’s determination, which Bisland described as “doggedness,” that made Jim such an adept leader.
“It’s allowed him to stay on track and move forward with the things we had to move forward with, and a lot has gotten accomplished because of that,” Bisland said.
In 2014, Jim played a key role in drafting the current Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and ensuring it included all jurisdictions whose rivers and streams drain into the Bay. Since the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1983, the Bay Program’s guiding document had only been updated two times—in 1987 and 2000. The latest Watershed Agreement brought together the existing goals of the partnership, while tying in the executive order and the Bay TMDL. It was also the first agreement to include the three headwater states—New York, West Virginia and Delaware—in the partnership.
The Watershed Agreement continues to be the partnership’s guiding document, with 10 goals and 31 outcomes related to water quality, habitat, stewardship and more.
Jim’s leadership abilities are matched only by his passion for the Chesapeake Bay. You have only to look at the tattoo on his leg—an outline of the estuary with the words “Bay Strong” written in blue ink—to understand his commitment.
“I got the tattoo just before the March for Science in 2017,” said Jim, speaking of the year in which various federal agencies faced the threat of significantly reduced budgets and support from the new presidential administration. “Bay Strong” is also how Jim signs off his emails, including his farewell email in December.
Tackling a challenge as big as water pollution
In his final years at the Bay Program, Jim worked to advance a new objective for the partnership.
When the current Watershed Agreement was drafted in 2014, Jim was one of the first to advocate for a diversity outcome that commits the partnership to identifying stakeholder groups not currently represented in the leadership, decision-making or implementation of current conservation and restoration activities while creating meaningful opportunities and programs to recruit and engage these groups in Bay Program efforts. After the outcome was included in the Watershed Agreement, Jim became the chair of the workgroup tasked with achieving it.
In 2020, after completing the first-ever Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity, Equity Inclusion and Justice Strategy, the Diversity Workgroup proposed an additional action: a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) statement to be signed by the Chesapeake Executive Council. By having the governors of the six watershed states, the mayor of Washington, D.C. the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the EPA Administrator commit to increasing DEIJ in every facet of the partnership, put the Bay Program on a path towards cultivating a more inclusive and just Chesapeake Bay region.
“Jim was instrumental in being a champion and voice for DEIJ at the Bay Program’s leadership level,” said Tuana Phillips, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s diversity and local engagement coordinator. “He provided presentations and updates to elevate the work of the Diversity Workgroup and helped coalesce support for the signing of the Executive Council DEIJ statement.”
In retirement, Jim’s leadership on the DEIJ statement adds to a legacy already well-defined by the Bay TMDL, the executive order and all the other actions he helped achieve in the name of greater environmental sustainability and social justice.
Jim’s environmental pursuits have not come to an end, however. As a certified Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional, he is now a freelance landscape architect specializing in rain gardens, pollinator gardens and other best management practices that improve local water quality. Even in retirement Jim is committed to the Bay and looking for problems to solve.