My Clean Water Story: Martha Shimkin
Bay Program leadership reflects on the Clean Water Act 50th anniversary
Growing up in Kansas, my understanding and appreciation for water was limited mostly to swimming pools, sprinklers and family trips to reservoirs. As a teenager, my family moved to New Jersey and discovered “The Shore.” I became a lap swimmer and a Red Cross certified lifeguard, but even then I still took our access to clean water for granted.
This changed when I began traveling as an exchange student and a volunteer. In Haiti, I observed a community without access to improved water or sanitation. I witnessed local women balancing clay pots on their heads as they trudged up steep paths, taking water to mix with concrete where we were building a school. I later joined the Peace Corps in Central America where I collected drinking water from gutters into a rusty trash barrel and swam down streams through banana fields, more worried about alligators than pesticide run-off.
Upon returning to the United States, I moved to Washington, D.C., and began a career at the Environmental Protection Agency. I worked in the Office of International Activities, where I stood up for rights to safe water and improved sanitation, here and around the globe. I participated in world events and traveled to sites in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. I helped launch an international mainstream environmental agenda on children’s health and eventually served as an executive in EPA’s Office of Water where I upheld the Clean Water Act—leading permitting processes to cut water pollution discharges, finance clean water projects, and reduce point and non-point sources of pollution.
Since 2020, I have had the honor of serving as the Deputy Director of the EPA office that supports the nearly 40-year-old Chesapeake Bay Program. This large partnership of experts from varied backgrounds and capabilities works across six states and the District of Columbia in a common mission to restore the waters of the Chesapeake Bay by reducing pollution, improving habitat and fisheries management, supporting economic viability, and increasing access to the waters for all to enjoy.
As we celebrate 50 years of Clean Water Act protections – and nearly 40 years of the Chesapeake Bay program – I must stop to reflect on the thousands of people in the Chesapeake region who have accomplished so much despite complex environmental challenges. I have watched degraded rivers turn into sought-after outdoor spaces. I have enjoyed walks along many new living shorelines. And I have had had memorable opportunities to talk with farmers, conservation districts, and county officials about the work being done in their local watersheds.
My clean water story expresses a deep gratitude for everyone involved in the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort and their dedication to science, policy, and partnership. I relish the opportunity to help guide the Chesapeake Bay Program as we work to protect human health and the environment.
What is your clean water story?
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