Environmental leader takes reins of stormwater restoration

Erik Michelsen is set to take over the county's multimillion-dollar stormwater program. Here, he stands next to one of the county's streambed restoration projects at Wilelinor outside Annapolis.

Erik Michelsen will miss the water view.

But he's leaving his office on a knoll above the South River for a good reason:

Michelsen is the first administrator of the county's new comprehensive stormwater restoration and watershed protection program.

He starts next Thursday, a day after leaving his job as executive director of the South River Federation.

"I am already having meetings at the county. I want to jump right into it," he said.

The Watershed Protection and Restoration Program will become one of divisions in the Department of Public Works, like solid waste or utilities. The staff is being put together now, some moving over from other public works offices, others hired to get the program geared up.

"We're at first building the infrastructure of the program for the massive implementation ahead," he said. "On the front the ratio of staffing to implementation is greater, but as the program matures much more will go into getting project in the ground."

Michelsen didn't set out to be an public works administrator. After growing up in Severna Park and graduating from Severn School in 1992, he took undergraduate degrees in psychology and philosophy, then a graduate degree in psychology.

While working on social science research he found himself spending a lot of free time involved with various environmental groups and efforts.

"Growing up here I recognize how important the Chesapeake Bay and its waterways are to people's quality of life," he said. "Anne Arundel County is inextricably linked to its waterways, it is what sets us apart."

He finally decided to turn a passion for the environment into his vocation.

His first paying environmental job came about nine years ago, when he joined ecological restoration company Underwood and Associates as a program manager.

"It was on-the-job training and a graduate degree rolled into one," Michelsen said.

Company principal Keith Underwood said Michelsen is a master at pulling together research and has an uncanny attention to detail. "I don't think the county could have hired anyone better for the job."

After three years, Michelsen took over at the South River Federation where he had been a volunteer and board member for a few years.

"Under Erik's leadership the (federation) has grown to be among the top watershed organizations in the state," Federation Board Chair Lynn Buhl said.

The work ahead could be daunting - establishing a $70 to $75 million a year program to restore and repair years of neglected infrastructure and reconnecting streams to their floodplains in the out years.

The program has been controversial. When the county council passed legislation last year, newly-appointed County Executive Laura Neuman vetoed it, only to be overridden by the council.

Amendments staggered implementation of the state mandated program and it's average $85 per property tax based on the amount of impervious or hard surfaces on a property. Other amendments gave breaks to some segments of the population and limited the amount of tax to percentage of property taxes.

Now, bills before the Maryland legislature seek to kill what Republicans dub the "rain tax." Neuman and her GOP rival for county executive have been feuding and trying to outmaneuver each other on the issue.

Is it a threat to the county program? It is hard to say, but Michelsen thinks it will move forward.

"Almost everyone recognizes this problem exists and that stormwater restoration has to be taken care of, even though there is disagreement on the strategy to pay for it," he said. "But the fact is it is a looming issue that has to be tackled by the county, that is pretty much the consensus at this point."

When Michelsen gets to work, among the first tasks will be retrofitting stormwater ponds and repairing pipes. He wants the public to see results in their local waterways. "We have to demonstrate these are dollars well spent."