With the Chesapeake Bay, solving a complex leadership problem
By Tom Fox,
Katherine Antos is a water-quality team leader in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chesapeake Bay Program Office, where she led the creation and evaluation of state plans to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary, and one of the planet's first identified "marine dead zones." She previously worked for a private environmental consulting firm and for non-governmental organizations that work on land conservation and nature conservation issues. Antos was a 2011 Service to America Medal finalist in the Call to Service category. Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog, conducted the interview.
What aspects of this project appeal to you?
Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is a complex problem, and that really appeals to me because I honestly love problem-solving. I enjoy working on water-quality issues because water flows through communities and creates a sense of place. It’s also a basic need, in terms of ensuring public health and providing recreation opportunities. The most exciting aspect of working on a high-profile, complex project with many partners was that it brought together people who are leaders in their field, including scientists, decision-makers, practitioners and lawyers, for one common goal: creating a rigorous and accountable strategy for reducing pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
How do leadership skills come into play when working with states, especially if there is resistance from those who will be affected?
Much of the work the federal government does relies on effective partnerships, and cleaning up the river and streams that flow into the Chesapeake Bay is no exception. Six states and the District of Columbia make up the 64,000 square miles that drain into the bay, so it’s important we’re working closely with all of them. The good news is that every state in the Chesapeake watershed wants clean water, and they’re willing to work for it. That makes it easy, and personally inspiring, to work closely with these teams of federal and state agencies.
Leadership involves recognizing that each state has its own strengths, priorities and needs. We have to set clear expectations of what needs to be done, how much pollution needs to be reduced and what are the elements of a credible clean-up strategy. Then we give the states and the District of Columbia the space to tailor their own clean-up strategies, based on their unique opportunities and challenges.
How do you work with the folks who may be lagging?
It involves clearly explaining what will happen if goals are not achieved. These partners have to know there are no surprises and we’re honest brokers. I was speaking with about a hundred storm water managers and local government employees a couple of months ago, who asked to meet with me because they didn’t fully understand what EPA was asking for. They had been hearing a lot of information third hand.
I explained how much pollution needed to be reduced and provided them with different ideas on how to work together to achieve the reductions. Once they understood what needed to be done, they were quick to jump in and suggest ideas for tailoring strategies in their communities that would also lower costs, reduce flooding and protect their local waterways. They became enthusiastic partners who felt empowered to clean up the Bay in a better way.
How do you communicate with stakeholders to make sure things are moving in the right direction?
It never makes sense to wait until there is a crisis. It’s important to have frequent communication at many levels. I hold forums with our states and local partners in a way that interested members of the public can participate. I also create opportunities where we can have conference calls for states to bounce ideas off EPA as a group. It’s important to establish an element of trust and truly listen to partners that are reaching out, even when we might disagree. I try to put myself in their shoes to see what challenges they’re facing and what objectives they need to accomplish. Just as importantly, I work with the senior management in my agency and help them reach out regularly to their senior manager counterparts in the states so we have conversations at multiple levels. I can be the air traffic controller with all those communications happening rather than do it myself.
What influenced you to contribute to this field?
I rowed on my crew team in college. Seeing the red flags that would go up after any substantial rainfall, I learned that when it rained a certain amount of raw sewage was flowing into the river where I rowed. Water splashed in my face for three hours a day, eight months a year. It sent one of my teammates to the hospital with a staph infection. Experiencing that first hand got me interested in ensuring that the public had access to clean and safe water.