By Zach Sparks
Ron Bowen was not a construction worker, but he spent much of his time breaking barriers as an advocate of cleaner waterways, so it was fitting that a similarly minded environmental steward, Erik Michelsen, was honored with the first Ron Bowen Environmental Legacy Award during a ceremony at Northeast High School on February 23.
Much like Bowen, who always sought outside-the-box solutions and collaboration between government and citizens, Michelsen, the Anne Arundel County Watershed Protection and Restoration Program (WPRP) administrator, has operated beyond his job description to enact real change.
“Not only does Erik help build infrastructure around the restoration movement in Anne Arundel County, but he helps connect the pieces to make the movement work on a large scale,” said Kate Fritz, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Master Watershed Steward. “Erik has helped create many dedicated places where stewards are able to find resources, funding, and are able to execute projects in their communities.”
The Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy created the award in honor of Bowen, the former director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works and co-founder of the Watershed Stewards Academy. Michelsen fit the criteria as someone who exemplifies visionary leadership and fosters environmental action through connecting government and private resources.
A Severna Park resident, Michelsen entered the field in 2005 as a project manager for Underwood & Associates, an ecosystem restoration firm. As executive director of the South River Federation from 2008 to 2014, he led the organization’s advocacy efforts and participated closely in its ecosystem restoration projects.
When Department of Public Works director Chris Phipps was looking for someone to lead the newly formed WPRP in 2014 following the passage of the stormwater management fee, he looked to Michelsen as a potentially unorthodox yet effective candidate.
“With Erik coming from an advocate and activist perspective, we weren’t sure how that would fit with county projects and the bureaucracy to work within constraints,” Phipps said. “Now that we’re here, it was the exact spark we needed to get the watershed program off the ground.”
As one example, Phipps identified a partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Trust in which the county invests $1 million and gets supplemental grant funding to solicit competitive proposals from riverkeepers and community organizations.
As another example, Phipps highlighted how the Department of Public Works has allocated $5 million per year for three years to have organizations put forward their best pollutant load reduction projects.
“Those are just two examples of how Erik’s creativity and innovative spirit demonstrated themselves,” Phipps said. “He’s always striving for the most bang-for-the-buck alternatives.”
When Michelsen took over the WPRP, he was tasked with helping the county meet its obligations under the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit and the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Much of that work has come in the form of stream restoration, fixing failed or outdated dry ponds and infiltration basins, and enhancing storm drains where stormwater is discharged into erosive soils.
Outreach was another core part of his job, informing taxpayers how funds from the stormwater management fee were being wisely spent and why stormwater is a major problem.
“A lot of the public outreach has really been focused on explaining that our problems in the Magothy River [and] the Severn River aren’t mostly driven by sewage overflows in Baltimore City or chicken farms on the Eastern Shore,” Michelsen said.
As a show of transparency, the Department of Public Works lists watershed restoration projects online so county residents can track nearby projects and see progress by number of projects completed and anticipated. Michelsen and his team have also encouraged community organizations and nonprofits to get involved by helping them get grants and matching funding provided by the state.
Michelsen said some progress has been made, and even though the focus is improving water quality, some people are seeing improvements by the community features.
“We’re trying to focus on water quality,” Michelsen said, “but to the extent that we’re improving some perception of quality of life or other kinds of features in these communities, that’s what we hope to do as well because frankly that’s a lot more tangible for people throughout the county as opposed to nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment reduction.”
Michelsen said the WPRP is on pace to undergo about 25 projects annually, and he thinks that is a sustainable number for the next 10 or 15 years.
Phipps said Bowen laid the groundwork for the program’s success. “Ron changed the face of Public Works as a county agency so that it partnered with residents who are leading the charge. In that sense, he was a force multiplier,” Phipps said. “Erik saw that synergy and has gone even farther with it.
“Ron came from the more traditional side of engineering, from a concrete and buried pipe concept to a more environmentally sensitive mindset of floodplain restoration and open channels,” Phipps said. “He was old school and he learned new school.”
Reflecting on his career as WPRP administrator so far, Michelsen has been pleased so far and he praised Bowen for serving as a model of someone who could bring multiple county departments together.
“Having known him personally and having known what he was able to get accomplished made it even more meaningful with the award because he was somebody I really looked up to and somebody who made a career in local government look a lot more palatable,” Michelsen said. “I was able to see the things he was able to do and how he was able to be effective and use that as a model for my own career.”