I met Denise (P.E., CFM, ENV SP, LEED AP, and many other accomplishments) at a green networking night at Hardywood Brewery. I made her acquaintance before making my way out, and mentioned that I was getting my Master’s of Public Administration at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. She, in what I’d come to find was her usual exceptionally gregarious way, said, “I could use one of those!” and I quickly volunteered to be her intern.
The very next Tuesday we were headed to Fredericksburg to meet with the Rappahannock River Basin Commission’s Technical Committee. I sat at a well-appointed conference table with a group of water quality experts and community leaders and got a first-hand look at how policy regarding the health of Virginia’s watersheds starts to form.
Over the next two months Denise and I (and Darren Coffey) attended meetings at: • George Washington Regional Commission (GWRC) in Fredericksburg, • Crater Planning District Commission in Petersburg, • Greensville County Administration Office, • Commonwealth Regional Commission in Farmville, • Essex County Administrative Offices in Tappahannock, and • the Department of Environmental Quality in downtown Richmond, among other places.
Berkley Group facilitates meetings and crafts plans for a variety of projects. In Greensville, I attended the public hearing of the solar zoning ordinance that Darren built for them, with a focus on the environment and land-use that would allow Greensville to grow flexibly in the future. At GWRC, Denise led meetings about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) Phase III, the cooperative effort between Virginia localities to meet the EPA’s clean water guidelines by 2025. We also went to meetings about the Healthy Watersheds Forest Initiative, federal Coastal Zone Management program, and the Plant Native Rappahannock Plants Campaign Working Group, each with their own consortia of stakeholders. Denise also introduced me to fascinating people in the state and local government.
One of the most interesting aspects of the things I experienced along the way – and which I think has contributed a great deal to my understanding of public policy – was how little details in each stakeholder’s sphere of influence came to have such bearing on the policy at hand. For instance, the WIP Phase III has nitrogen and phosphorous reduction goals for each of the counties touching a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. For rural counties, who don’t have significant sewer or municipally-separate stormwater systems, this means: 1) collaborating with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), often the largest developer in the counties, and 2) reducing pollutants from poorly maintained private septic systems, which they would hope the Department of Health (VDH) would take responsibility for or contribute to. Neither organization thus far had seemed willing to make contact, meanwhile the unique issues facing rural counties made it difficult for a one-size-fits-all WIP. This came down to discussions about septic tank technology, the availability of pumping trucks, and crowdsourced geospacial data collection apps – details which affect matters of policy – and which would have been missed if not for having everyone at the table.
When Denise finally did facilitate meetings with VDOT and VDH, it became clear that the minutia of their bureaucratic positions were influencing their ability to contribute. VDOT was happy to collaborate, but have bandwidth and regulatory issues which lead them to only tackle larger projects which won’t be slated for future roadways. VDH understands the pressing need for better data and centralized administration, but they haven’t been able to input new data or reconcile their database for months because of a switch to a new, unreliable, cloud-based software platform.
Technical details like this came up everywhere. Others were political and required not only stakeholder engagement, but a keen understanding of how individual personalities and ideologies would react to those policy details. Getting a first-hand look at how Denise handled these and other issues was very valuable to me.
Having an internship with Berkley Group and being able to participate in this necessarily messy process of bringing incremental, positive change to Virginia’s environment has enriched my understanding of the reality of that process and given me some clarity on how my career might fit into it. It was refreshing to work for a company that uses their planning and engineering expertise to put the environment first and brings together local leaders in order to do it.
Also: it was fun! The BG family is full of genuine, intelligent people, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with them once I have my degree.