September 29, 2008

Environment Now's Terry O'Day Leads Unique Foundation to Clean Water, Beaches Along Coast

California, and Southern California in particular, has no shortage of environmental interest groups appealing to the public and the government for greater protections of the environment. One such group, however, Environment Now, stands out for its successes in achieving its agenda at the local level. MIR was pleased recently to speak with the executive director of Environment Now, Terry O'Day, who explained how the unique structure of the foundation enables real grass roots change and measurable results.


Terry O'Day

This story appeared in the MIR insert included in the August 2008 issue of The Planning Report.

What is the focus of Environment Now's agenda?

Environment Now is about getting measurable results in ecosystems. We are constantly challenging ourselves to figure out how to measure environmental outcomes. Over the years, we've developed expertise in water quality-in particular, in setting up the Waterkeeper movement. We've founded or been involved in the founding of 11 Waterkeepers from the Klamath River at the Oregon border down to La Paz in Baja, California.

Our first program was a forest program, where we helped to establish teams to act as NGOs in the Sierras, addressing forest protection. We have expertise in establishing new NGOs.

We take an activist perspective on our work. We like to work on building up grassroots campaigns to address local needs and helping local people identify their resources and saying to polluters: "You have no more right to pollute here than my kids have to swim here."

What is the role of Environment Now in Baja, Mexico?

We began to look at Baja as an extension of the water quality and Waterkeeper work that we were doing in California. We started working in local communities to identify individuals who were ready to take a leadership role in addressing environmental challenges there. Having been under one-party rule for so long, they haven't established a strong record in utilizing tools of democracy-activism, organizing, and influencing policy. Our goal is to get folks involved, to enforce and help define some of these laws, and to establish a culture of respect for the environment. We've founded two Waterkeepers there, and we have a couple more on the way.

What are the metrics for judging success in these locations?

We are looking at some specific water quality samples in the bays where they're working, as well as helping to advance access tools. While there has been statutory law, there hasn't been good definition of some of that statutory law in practice. Enabling NGOs to build some capacity and engage with elected and government officials and people on the ground-we're getting that base set up and measuring the inputs and the outcomes.

Waterkeepers is based in Southern California, with original funding from Frank Wells and Stan Lee. What's the metric employed for judging its success in California?

The Waterkeeper model is about local people volunteering to go out on the water, take water quality samples, identify the pollutants, and then engage the polluter to stop. Santa Monica Baykeepers' biggest success in the past few years has been settling the L.A. City sewage spill lawsuit, which resulted in $1 billion of investment in a sewer system upgrade. They've also addressed storm water pollution and advanced the storm water permit in the region.

The folks in Northern California have been working on agricultural run-off and reducing run-off from fields, cattle, and other animal-feeding operations. There's a range of pollutants to our waterways, and the backbone of our movement is the Clean Water Act, and the absolute prohibition of discharge to our waterways.

Has Environment Now moved into water recharge and groundwater storage?

In beginning to work on water supply issues, and looking at the range of ways that we could be effective in the state, we took a very Southern Californian perspective and saw that we needed to create some self-sufficiency in Southern California. The great advantage for Southern California, despite being an arid region, is that we're at the end of the pipeline. And we have good groundwater storage capacity.

Right now, our wastewater is being discharged into the ocean without any further treatment that could enable us to re-utilize it. The truth is, all water is recycled. There's a finite amount of water available to us on this planet. We have technology available to us now, and Orange County has demonstrated it in a large-scale application, to treat our wastewater and put it back into groundwater table and pump it back up for consumption.

When you're judging Environment Now's performance and choosing your priorities, what other foundations do you benchmark against or look at as models?

We walk the line between being an activist NGO and being a private foundation. We don't take unsolicited grant proposals. We work as a team and think about what the needs are in the environment and work with our partners to figure that out. Then we put together strategies to make those happen. Where there's an NGO to fund, we'll fund them. Where there isn't, we'll do it ourselves. That model is unique. It's more toward an operating foundation. When you look at the operating foundations out there-Pew is the biggest one, there was a great foundation in Northern California that recently changed their mission, the Kirsch Family Foundation. One of the older ones that was influential in the Environment Now model was the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Those folks have influence on the thinking at Environment Now in establishing our model and how we know that we're getting things done.

Climate change, sustainability, and clean and green technology have emerged as citizen and government priorities in the past five years. How has the explosion in environmental consciousness at the local and global level impacted your foundation's opportunities to change the marketplace, our culture, and citizen behavior?

Although there's a lot more attention to these issues, it remains to be seen what kind of behavioral change will follow. As we look at where we're headed, people generally believe that some things will change in their lives as a result of environmental constraints. There's a mix of worry and opportunity. From our point of view, we want to make sure that the resources that are put into place are attentive to our ecosystem concerns.

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With all the pressure on our ports to accommodate goods movement, what's Environment Now current attitude and interest in transportation?

We funded Coalition for Clean Air and the NRDC for years. Mary Nichols signed that. The difficult thing about transportation is the distributed nature of the pollution sources. The need for new technology to address that as much as the network of pollution sources is distributed-the cars or trucks-there are purchasing provisions for those vehicles, and they typically don't turn over for seven to ten years.

No matter what, if you have the cleanest cars available in the market today, you wouldn't see a complete turnover for another ten years. Transportation is inherently really difficult for us to figure out, at least in the category of personal vehicles.

If you look at shipping, that's a component where you have a smaller set of actors. You have large shipping companies, the ports, and the airports. Those are all small sectors that you can begin to address to get change. Anywhere you get bottlenecks-that's where the opportunity is. That's why utilities and buildings will be easier to deal with than transportation.

What drivers of policy change does Environmental Now invest in to leverage a cleaner, more sustainable marketplace?

AB 32 is what's really driving change right now. We don't know exactly what that's going to be, but it is the elephant in the room on environmental policy at this moment. The other drivers of change for us are the state implementation plans for the Clean Air Act, which sets our overall budget for how much air pollution the region is allowed to have. Ratcheting that down and finding the technology to enable that to work has been a strategy that we've used of late.

What are the emerging environmental litigation frontiers that are driving marketplace change in the first decade of the 21st century?

The areas of promise that we see include public trust protection of water and, potentially, air and public trust doctrines as applied to navigable waters. The Mono Lake case extended that to tributaries of those waters. We think that there are other extensions that would be consistent with our state constitution's claim that water is held in a public trust.

Advancing that in the next couple of decades, not only is there a clear march toward that happening, but water is also the first impact that we're facing from climate change. There will be a real need to do that, and science will likely bear that out.

We were involved in turning back some property rights claims on people trying to convert the water rights into property rights, thereby claiming a regulatory taking by the federal government when they enforce the Endangered Species Act. That's an important piece.

Another category we're going to see is more and more Endangered Species Act listings, because species are being imperiled at faster rates.

The other thing, of course, is climate change law, in particular, the use of CEQA and NEPA. The attorney general got a lot of press out of the lawsuit and settlement with the county of San Bernardino, but there's still a lot of territory to figure out in terms of how you incorporate climate considerations into an EIR. How do you actually make that functional in terms of mitigation in the CEQA process? Does this suggest that a community like Gardena that's interested in building a mixed-use development that has some carbon impact is going to have to send an offset to an Indonesian forest to mitigate for the carbon that the project would create? I don't really see that as being politically tenable, so that suggests that we're going to need a local market for these offsets. How that gets established and incorporated into CEQA is going to be a real area for the law in the next decade.

If we speak a year from now, what will you be addressing and prioritizing?

We'll have a couple more Mexican Waterkeepers and some successes throughout the Waterkeeper movement. I'm hopeful that we'll have a deal on water supply at the state line that will address some of the self-sufficiency questions that we talk about in Southern California. We hope to provide some ecosystem repair in the California Delta and preclude development of dams in California.

Lastly, Where do you go to learn about what's going on in the environment? Where do you find exemplary programs that are and should be supported by operating and grant-making foundations?

There are a couple of foundation collaboratives that we're involved in that provide us access to some of the newer models that have worked for funding an NGO. We consulted a group on biological diversity. We also look for scientific reports coming out of universities that give us a sense for the real science; we want to be in touch with real science as the basis for this movement. We are looking for news reports from various publications to find groups that have a new approach to their work.

We survey the environmental community every year and bring together environmental panels on a couple of areas of the environment. We have academics and policy-makers survey the past year and make a statement as to what the top achievements of the environmental movement have been. That gives us a lot of insight into what models have worked in California and what we can apply from past efforts to future challenges. That can also give us a sense of what some of the setbacks of the year were, and where some of the opportunities are going forward. This is the fourth year that we've done this, and it's been a real tool for us to create a dialogue between academics and policy-makers on these topics, and also survey the environmental movement to find out what's really working and getting resolved, not just the headlines.

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