O’Mara: Everyone needs clean water, but it takes a movement

Date Published: 
December 9, 2016

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Former state Sen. George H. Bunting announces an environmental award while former DNREC Sec. Collin O’Mara and his wife, Krishanti, share a laugh.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Former state Sen. George H. Bunting announces an environmental award while former DNREC Sec. Collin O’Mara and his wife, Krishanti, share a laugh.Clean water isn’t a matter of environmentalists versus business versus farming. Everyone benefits, so clean water has to be considered “a value,” not a political issue, said Collin O’Mara, president/CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and former head of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control.

“There are a whole lot of things we could do if we were a lot more collaborative about it,” O’Mara said at the Nov. 30 Love Your Inland Bays Dinner, hosted by the Inland Bays Foundation.

Clean water must be considered an economic driver, not a nuisance, he said. For example, Realtors and builders rely on a healthy vision of the bays, which are currently “Look, but don’t touch,” as many of the waterways aren’t safe for swimming or fishing.

“You can’t have a thriving … community, unless you have access to clean water,” O’Mara said. “We know folks want to be close to those resources.”

It’s hard work, he noted. It’s more than lobbying for funding or a single bill. It takes a movement. But there is hope. Water projects are among the few bi-partisan bills moving on Capitol Hill, O’Mara said. Politically, people on the left and right care about water and resilience.

“It’s getting to the point where the Chamber [of Commerce] is as concerned about inland bays as the five-star-rated beaches,” he said.

Delaware’s small enough to fix the problem, and rational enough to have intelligent conversations about it, said O’Mara, who has visited every U.S. state and territory in the last two years.

The human population of the inland bays watershed has doubled, as people have become smitten with Sussex County’s beaches, bays, low taxes and general quality of life.

“How do we take that thinking and transfer it to love for the inland bays?” O’Mara said.

When Great Lakes funding was threatened, O’Mara said, businesspeople, politicians and environmentalists rose up together in such a wave of protest that they received apologies for the mere suggestion of funding cuts.

That kind of power makes things happen, O’Mara said. It starts as a bipartisan, grassroots effort.

Across the country, the non-partisan efforts are moving mountains, O’Mara said, but playing the blame game gets people nowhere fast.

Asked how agriculture can be included in the clean-water movement, O’Mara said, “Everyone here should attempt to talk to farmers,” and learn about their desires and their increasing challenges.

“Farmers are being squeezed on every side,” O’Mara said. “You have no idea what they’re going though. … Folks want to do the right thing for the most part, but they don’t want to cut their bottom line.”

He said farmers need support in the face of issues such as falling commodity prices if they’re going to support other causes.

The dinner’s keynote speaker was once the nation’s youngest cabinet secretary, as the head of Delaware’s DNREC.

O’Mara admitted that he had left some decisions in his successor’s hands because he was waiting for better technology to catch up to the projects. He also admitted he didn’t do enough groundwork, talking with businesses on various issues. He now encourages more legwork and small group conversations. He said he learned from state Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. (R-20th), “Don’t try to impose your will before you talk to folks.”

However, regulation is still needed sometimes to get things done. He reminded people of what water quality was before the Clean Water Act of 1977.

O’Mara said he still worries about property setbacks, the Rehoboth Beach wastewater outfall and other issues. There’s still much work to do, he said. “If we’re not more resilient, we could have a storm that impacts the inland bays for a generation.”

Recognizing friends of the environment

O’Mara was one of many special guests at the Love Your Inland Bays dinner in Lewes.

“My dream was that, in one special moment, we would have the whole environmental community together,” said IBF President Nancy Cabrera-Santos, proud to see that hope realized that night.

The nonprofit Inland Bays Foundation’s goals are advocacy, education and networking in making Sussex County’s waterways swimmable and fishable again.

Three Environmental Awards were presented to environmentalists who have made a contribution in Delaware. This year’s winners were current DNREC Secretary David Small, U.S. Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) (now Delaware’s governor-elect) and state Sen. Bryan Townsend (D-11th).

“This award is something that is shared with these guys — everyone in this room and the outstanding people that work in Dover for [DNREC],” said Small.

Having grown up in Worcester County, Md., he said he recommends everyone visit Public Landing, where he learned about crabbing, clamming, marsh grass and water quality.

Beginning a 28-year career at DNREC “was like being at home in many ways, and so these bays continue to have a special place in my heart,” Small said.

Brenna Goggin of the Delaware Nature Society accepted Townsend’s award on his behalf. She praised his enthusiasm and willingness to sponsor a water bill in an election year, despite its being doomed from the start. Eventually, he helped start a 35-member Clean Water Task Force instead, which should be releasing its final report very soon.

“I just think he’s a champion for those that need it most and is incredibly intelligent, has an open-door policy and is approachable, and is a real presence in Legislative Hall,” Goggin said.

O’Mara accepted on behalf of Carney, praising his bipartisan efforts over the years.