A Visionary for Chesapeake Waters
Anne Pearson’s persistence erodes apathy and earns a top award
by Carrie Madren, Bay Weekly Staff Writer
Stormwater isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t rally the masses like cute terrapins. Photos of pipes spilling runoff can’t compare to pictures of the iconic blue crab. Yet stormwater has made Anne Arundel County environmental activist Anne Pearson a hero.
In turn, Pearson’s made stormwater a hot topic, speaking of it at community meetings, persuading officials that it’s the issue of our times, researching, learning and bending the ear of anyone who will listen.
“She does enormous amounts of research, organizes the community,” says Kincey Potter, president of South River Federation. “Sometimes she irritates people because she doesn’t stop. But people listen to her after a while.”
A Prize for a Fighter
Pearson’s fierce determination has earned her this year’s Chesapeake Bay Trust Ellen Fraites Wagner Award, for which she was nominated by Potter and the South River Federation, one of the many groups Pearson has partnered with on projects. As well as honor, the award carries with it a $5,000 prize and an 18-inch-tall bronze blue heron statue, worth about $750.
The 10-year old award, established in 1998 by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, honors Ellen Fraites Wagner of former Gov. Harry Hughes’ staff. It was Wagner’s idea to create the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which has awarded more than $20 million in environmental restoration grants since its creation in 1985. The Trust’s funds come mostly from contributions and the sale of Treasure the Chesapeake license plates.
Winners of the Wagner award must have devoted more than 30 hours each week of their own time and brought in others in their commitment to make a difference in restoring the Bay watershed.
“Anne has been fighting for clean water for over a decade,” Potter says. “She spearheaded an effort to educate the community about the need for a stormwater utility fund to repair all the damage by runoff.” Since Pearson’s been working on stormwater, Potter says, “it’s gone from being present on public radar to being a major issue in the last campaign.”
Pearson joins a list of past winners including Charles Conklin, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, 2006; Mel Wilkins, Spa Creek Conservancy, 2004; and Sen. Bernie Fowler, 1998, the first winner. Pearson was selected from a pool of 16 applicants, narrowed down to five finalists.
“It came down to her sustained commitment to educate the public and get them involved. One of the measures we evaluate is commitment over time,” says David O’Neill, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust. “Over the past 10 years, Anne’s continued to beat the good drum for the environment on issues relevant to the times, and advocate for the Bay.”
After a Personal Hit
As the old year ended, honor was far from Pearson’s mind. It seemed her hard work for November’s election had amounted to nothing.
She was hit so hard because for the last year and a half, Pearson had made stormwater her life. Documenting the problem and coming up with a solution obsessed her, waking and sleeping.
Traveling water drew her attention first when walking in a downpour in downtown Annapolis. She would take her shoes off because of water pouring out of the downspouts, through the streets and rushing to the creek behind Market Street, undisturbed.
Through Alliance for Sustainable Communities, which she began in 1993, Pearson had formed alliances with other environmental groups like the South River Federation, churches, county government and more.
Now on stormwater, she made herself a gadfly, showing up at nearly every twice-monthly County Council meeting or dispatching others to proselytize about stormwater. Pearson used to her advantage the rule that anyone can speak for two minutes at the beginning of a County Council meeting on a topic not on the agenda.
Often, she sent recruits to testify.
“Watermen came, the crabbers came and would say, there wasn’t algae on crab pots 10 years ago, now it’s totally gummed up and the water’s sick because of runoff,” Potter said. Citizens came, to witness that rain had eroded their yards and that their local streams were sick.
Her solution to the problem that obsessed her grew out of earlier environmental activism. When then-county executive Janet Owens created the Impact Fee Committee, Pearson says she “sat in and became aware that among the impact fees that developers pay, there is no fee for air and water. Because developers cause runoff, I felt there should be an impact fee for stormwater and erosion.”
As Anne Arundel prepared to elect a new county executive, Pearson focused her determination on winning the candidates’ commitment to support such an annual fee. As little as $5 per month could, she argued, in Anne Arundel County bring in $20 million each year to combat erosion and pollution from runoff. On the positive side, landowners who create living, or green, roofs, install cisterns, or use porous surfaces that allow water through would pay less because of the environmental good they do.
She lobbied tirelessly, including inviting candidates on a bus tour of the county’s worst stormwater erosions and best remediations.
George Johnson rode along and was won over. John Leopold skipped the bus trip instead following by car for an hour and did not agree that a tax was the only way to solve the county’s stormwater crisis. She took Leopold’s election on November 7 as her personal failure.
Even when Pearson learned that she’d won the award, she didn’t leap for joy.
“I felt despair when I heard I’d been given the award,” Pearson says, “because I haven’t been able to accomplish my goal. I haven’t been able to help people understand that they’re part of this place.”
Pearson’s eventual reconciliation was to use the January 16 awards ceremony to urge people to join her in her cause. She gained hope that the award would draw allies to understand their place on Earth and make rules to express that.
She seeks now to weave a network of people who share her vision. She’ll use her $5,000 prize money to build her “constellation.”
Once again, she has hope.
“Though I haven’t been successful in my dedicated effort in Anne Arundel County,” she says. “There is potential legislation to be introduced during this session as Gov. Martin O’Malley indicated that he wanted to establish a match for counties that establish stormwater restoration fees. Leopold will be left behind if other counties begin that process.”
Through daily failure or success, Pearson’s life work to convert others to feel their place on the Earth and act to better that place fuels her own passion.
“People have a need for passion,” Pearson says. “We just need to gather more people around that image, and that’s what I’ll be doing.”.