As she prepares to step down as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa P. Jackson says one of the "prouder moments" of her tenure was President Obama's agreement to have the federal government take the lead in trying to ramp up the lagging Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.
Jackson, whose agency's work to address climate change and reduce air pollution have drawn much more attention and controversy, recalled with pride her role in helping to renew a cleanup effort that had repeatedly failed to reach its goals in the decades before Obama took office.
At the urging of Jackson and other advisers, Obama issued an executive order in May 2009 declaring the bay a national treasure and calling on the federal government to lead a renewed effort to restore it from decades of decline.
Jackson served 2 years as chair of the council of federal and state officials guiding the regional effort. She visited Maryland several times to promote bay cleanup projects, and came to Baltimore in 2011 to announce a federal initiative to help cities restore their degraded waters.
In a telephone interview this week, Jackson said her agency's efforts on the bay, on top of reforms already begun by Maryland's and Virginia's governors, have helped yield encouraging results.
"The bay is improving," she said. "Pollution trends are heading in the right direction."
Jackson noted that the blue crab population is rebounding, and she said the estuary is showing signs of "resiliency" when hit by storms and weather conditions that affect its water quality.
But, she added, "We know we still have challenges."
Indeed, in a recent briefing for the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Jackson's senior bay advisor, Jeff Corbin, ticked off a laundry list of legal, political, financial and technical challenges the cleanup effort faces even as it appears to be making progress.
On the legal front alone, the agency is awaiting a ruling in a federal lawsuit by farm and developer groups challenging EPA's authority to impose pollution reduction requirements on the bay watershed's six states. Environmentalists have filed another lawsuit contesting EPA's willingness to permit pollution "trading" as part of the bay cleanup. And the agency recently lost a case in a Virginia federal court over its attempt to curb storm-water runoff that's fouling a Potomac River tributary.
"That's our wonderful democracy," she said. "People certainly have the right to try to intervene." But she said she was impressed with how hard state and local officials in the watershed are working to fulfill the spirit of the "pollution diet" EPA drew up for the bay.
"We worked awfully hard to ensure that the state (pollution-reduction plans) are realistic and achievable," she said. "We understand that state budgets are strapped. We're being reasonable and firm, but not unmindful of the circumstances."
Some farming groups and other EPA critics have warned that the federal agency is intent on applying a Chesapeake-style "pollution diet" to other watersheds suffering from nutrient pollution, particularly the massive Mississippi River basin, which drains the nation's Farm Belt. But Jackson said that was not in the cards.
"There is no doubt that nutrients now are the number one cause of water pollution across our country," she said, "and that water bodies big and small are becoming more toxic because of algae blooms and other problems. It's a real problem, but we would like to see the states take the lead."
Others have suggested that the federal Clean Water Act needs to be updated to deal with polluted runoff from diffuse sources such as farm fields and city and suburban streets. Jackson said she believed the law, though 41 years old, retains enough flexibility to find "alternate solutions" to those problems.
And she offered a qualified defense of one controversial idea being tried in the Chesapeake - "trading" rights to discharge nutrient pollution.
"I think there's a role for nutrient trading," she said. "I think it needs to be done with an eye toward ensuring you're not creating a hotspot - one place becoming dead while another becomes clean, that's not okay."
In concept, she said, there's merit in seeking less costly ways to reduce nutrient pollution. Local officials in Maryland and elsewhere in the bay region have complained loudly and threatened to balk over projected costs for reducing storm-water pollution and replacing septic systems.
But the EPA chief suggested that the move to trading needs to be carefully thought out to prevent abuses.
"You need to ensure that trading is not in any way corrupted by bad science," she said. "So we need to make sure we don't move so quickly that we allow people to make statements that they've reduced pollution when they haven't."
She said EPA would work with the states to ensure that any trading scheme is "verifiable and real."
Jackson, a New Orleans native who took over EPA during the Obama administration after running New Jersey's environmental agency and spending much of her earlier career with EPA, said she had not decided what she will do after stepping down. She mentioned spending time with her family to begin with, but vowed to remain engaged in environmental and public health issues.