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Water Wars: Q&A with Attorney Jennifer Chavez

Attorney Jennifer Chavez talks about growing up in a desert, suing the Navy and why so many of Earthjustice's cases are about getting the government to do its job.

Q. What first drew you to work on water issues?

It's kind of ironic, but I grew up in a desert. I never learned to swim because swimming pools were few and far between.

So, water just strikes a sense of wonder in me, and I think that seeing our shared water resources being abused just really offended me in a place in my gut that I just couldn't let go of.

Q. Describe Earthjustice's work to clean up the Anacostia River in D.C., once considered one of the dirtiest rivers in America.

Unfortunately, it still is one of the dirtiest rivers in America, but we are working to turn that around. Our lawyers first engaged in a number of struggles to try to keep park lands along the rivers from being exploited for private gain. We're really lucky here in D.C. because almost 20 percent of the city is park land, but it seems like undeveloped land inevitably attracts proposals to build on that land. So our attorneys helped fight a number of proposals, including a proposal to build an amusement park on one of the islands in the Anacostia. Eventually our lawyers started to turn their heads to the water quality in the river itself.

"For sensitive aquatic life that is smothered in a matter of hours or days after a big flush of stormwater pollution, it doesn't matter that the conditions seem better when averaged over a season or a year."

One of our biggest cases was successfully suing the Navy for discharging toxic pollutants into the river. Gasoline, heavy metals and PCBs were being stored there—all things you don't want in the fish that you are eating. Today, fish advisories tell people in our nation's capital to not eat the fish they catch because they can have some of these toxic substances that build up in their tissues. But a lot of people still go down to the river and eat the fish that they catch to supplement their groceries—an estimated 17,000 people in the Anacostia River watershed. So it's a massive problem, but it needs to be addressed.

We also sued the local sewer agency to control sewer overflow into the river. Shamefully, D.C. is like other cities, meaning it has an antiquated sewer system that dumps raw sewage into the river every time it rains. So our lawsuits got court orders in place along with action from the EPA that produced plans to deal with the sewer overflow problem in a number of ways. We are working to make sure that plan is enforced and we are still fighting against occasional attempts to weaken the plan, so it's really a long-term commitment.

We are also working to get pollution limits established for the rivers here in D.C. These limits are called total maximum daily loads (TMDL), and initially they were established as annual and seasonal loads, so we had to litigate and make sure there were daily pollution limits. Having a daily limit in place is important for human recreation and for aquatic life. For a person who goes out to the river and only uses it once or twice a summer, if the river is just choked with sediment, that person's experience is ruined and it doesn't matter that over the course of an average year the pollution isn't as bad. And for sensitive aquatic life that is smothered in a matter of hours or days after a big flush of stormwater pollution, it doesn't matter that the conditions seem better when averaged over a season or a year.

It's common knowledge that it's a bad idea to eat the fish from D.C.'s river and that adds to the attitude of neglect toward the river. We are trying to turn around not just the governments' attitude toward the rivers but also the people so they start treasuring and demanding better for their rivers.

This is the nation's capital, and this river should be as much of an attraction as the monuments and the buildings that people go to see.

Q. There are so many water issues. How does Earthjustice choose which cases to work on?

Our priorities are usually set locally, but we try and use our legal tools to help raise the bar nationally.

For example, our efforts to get daily pollution limits in D.C. really had a knock-on effect. The federal Environmental Protection Agency was really keeping an eye on that case and when we got a court order saying that the pollution limits have to be daily, the EPA put out a recommendation to the regional offices that they start establishing daily limits.

"Our priorities are usually set locally, but we try and use our legal tools to help raise the bar nationally."

Although the EPA's recommendation doesn't have the same weight as a court ruling, in reality, the regional offices follow what the national office recommends—so we haven't had to have that same fight on a state-by-state level.

Q. What are some of the big cases that Earthjustice's regional offices are working on?

One of our major cases involves cleaning up stormwater pollution in Puget Sound. For several years, we have been very intensely engaged in Washington State to bring their stormwater program into the 21st century. In 2012, our lawyers won a huge victory in establishing the requirement for local jurisdictions to clean their stormwater using green design techniques.

In Maryland, we won a ruling in early 2013 agreeing that our local partners have a right to access the courts to prevent harm to their health and recreational interests. Before that, Maryland and District of Columbia residents who experience the noxious effects of urban water pollution first-hand were barred from challenging inadequate water pollution permits. Over the next several months, we intend to show the court that Maryland's permits for urban stormwater pollution are unlawfully weak.

Our Florida office has also been engaged in stopping pollution that primarily comes from agriculture and other operations that discharge fertilizer and sewage into waterways. Those sources cause not only ecological harm, but they also threaten human health in the form of toxic green slime that closes beaches and can sicken and kill children and pets.

Q. What are some of our most groundbreaking cases?

A lot of our cases have been groundbreaking simply as a result of long standing failures of the government to implement the laws that we do have on the books like the Clean Water Act.

For example, in the case of regulating nutrient pollution in Florida, we took the strategy of simply asking for limits on these pollutants, which seems a rather simple and obvious solution to the problem.

But from the perspective of the industries that are discharging these pollutants, it is a major shift in the way they are used to doing business.

Spotlight Features

Salve for River Sickness

Suzanne Helakas, an Earthjustice Foundations Officer, shares her recollection of her second day on the job in the Washington, D.C. office, traveling on the Anacostia River.

The Anacostia River

Not so long ago, the Anacostia River was the pride of the District of Columbia, flowing as a pristine ribbon for nearly nine miles from Prince George’s County in Maryland to where it empties into the Potomac. Unfortunately, the river has been abused for decades, making it one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.