A little over a year ago, Hilary Harp Falk took over as president and CEO of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, becoming only the third leader of the group since its founding in 1967. Before joining CBF, she spent nearly 13 years with the National Wildlife Federation, where she rose to become chief program officer.
Falk has roots in the Bay watershed and history with CBF. A Maryland native, she says she developed a passion for conservation while exploring the Bay’s edges in her childhood with her father, photographer Dave Harp (who is the Bay Journal staff photographer). She began her career as a college intern for CBF and, after graduating, became an educator at its Port Isobel Education Center.
She took the helm at a time when it was becoming increasingly clear that the Bay restoration effort would likely miss many of its goals by the self-imposed deadline of 2025. Thirteen months later, she sat down with Tim Wheeler, the Bay Journal’s associate editor and senior writer, to talk about the future of the restoration effort and CBF’s role in it.
What follows are excerpts of the interview, edited for space and clarity.
Question: When you became president at CBF, were you surprised to find the Bay restoration effort, which is 40 years old this year, wasn’t further along?
Answer: It’s been interesting to be away for a decade working on national issues and to come back and see both a lot of progress over the last decade and some of the same challenges. We’re all grappling right now [with] this big transition in the Chesapeake Bay movement, with new leaders, at a critical moment for the cleanup. I think there’s plenty to reflect on and consider, and a lot to be excited and optimistic about.
Q: Why do you think there hasn’t been more progress?
A: It’s really important to acknowledge that 2025 was an important deadline, but it was never going to be the finish line. While we’ve made significant progress in reducing pollution from wastewater treatment, we still have not made the reductions that we need in polluted runoff from farms, cities and towns. Certainly, the defining challenge of the Bay movement now is to address pollution running off farms.
Q: You have suggested that the restoration effort needs a dose of “integrity and honesty.” Can you elaborate?
A: We’ve been really focused on the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint [officially called the Bay’s total maximum daily load, or TMDL] and the numbers that we need to hit. What I get concerned about is, are we making meaningful progress and looking at what it’s really going to take to return clean water to the Bay?
I think we need to look at the quality of our plans as much as we need to look at the quantity behind our plans. We have some of the best science and the best modeling in the world. But how can we really couple that with a robust monitoring system and understand how to meaningfully verify progress?
Q: Some key elements of the restoration effort have been questioned, including how well some farm practices actually control polluted runoff. Do we really know what’s working and what’s needed?
A: Two thoughts on that. First, climate change changes everything…. We need to know a lot more about how climate change is impacting the Bay.
Second, we need to pay for outcomes, especially as it relates to polluted runoff from farms. We need to know through documented proof that the investments we’re making are going to have the desired outcome. And I think that is certainly a big gap in the Bay cleanup right now. We are investing an incredible amount of money into the cleanup generally [and] especially best management practices on farms. We need to know that they’re working and that we can see the benefits to local rivers and streams.
Q: Is reducing nutrient pollution really the most important part of restoring the Bay? The federal Clean Water Act calls for fishable and swimmable waters. How does reducing the Bay’s nutrient load make the water fishable or swimmable?
A: We need to focus more on people and communities. And when we do that, we know that the pollution to the Bay is not just [the nutrients] nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment. It’s also legacy pollution, toxics and temperature. And those are the kinds of things that we need to focus on in addition to looking at the [nutrient and sediment] goals under the Blueprint.
Q: Not long ago, CBF didn’t pay much attention to toxic pollution. Is that changing?
A: Absolutely. The communities that have been left behind, the frontline and fence-line communities that regularly deal with environmental injustices, are very interested in knowing what’s in the water and what’s impacting their communities. And so, here at CBF, we’re very focused on making sure that the benefits of clean water and healthy communities are enjoyed by everybody.
Q: There is a lot of concern these days about PFAS [per– and polyfluoroalkyl substances], so-called “forever chemicals” in water supplies, streams and fish. Is CBF doing anything to be more of an advocate in that area?
A: We’re pretty concerned about PFAS too. Like other toxic chemicals, we know that we need to know a lot more. We just don’t know enough in order to advance advocacy for addressing them.
Q: You’ve talked about the importance of putting people and communities at the center of the Bay cleanup. What does that mean?
A: It means that we need to make sure that we’re looking at the siting of different energy sources, and we need to make sure that we’re not neglecting communities that have been left behind, by ensuring that they have the support they need to challenge the issues that they face.
Q: What has CBF been doing lately to make its leadership, staff and work more diverse and inclusive?
A: We’re really excited this year to bring on a vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. [Carmera Thomas-Wilhite, former director of urban conservation initiatives at the Conservation Fund, recently returned to CBF, where she began her career as the Baltimore program manager.] We’re focused on making sure that our organization is inclusive and equitable. And we’re working to build trainings and webinars so that our staff knows and can understand the history of this country and this movement, which includes racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression. [It’s important that] we are advocating for the rights of everyone to have clean water and clean air, and that we are standing shoulder to shoulder with communities who have not enjoyed those benefits or are having issues with flooding or different environmental injustices.
Q: In discussing the Bay restoration, you said recently, “We’ll take a quick look back, but we also know in an age of climate change that we can’t go back. That Bay doesn’t exist anymore.” What did you mean by that?
A: A lot of times we evoke the Bay of 400 years ago, before colonialism. So much has changed during that time. The Bay watershed is now home to almost 19 million people. We’re in the age of climate change. That means we are not going back to that Bay. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t have a really bright future, because we have made so much progress on Bay restoration. We see some examples where we are improving water quality. We see the boom in oyster restoration and oyster aquaculture.
Q: What do you consider a restored Bay, then? Is it one full of crabs, rockfish and oysters or invasive blue catfish and snakeheads? Or all of the above?
A: I think a restored Bay is one where we have healthy habitat, we have resilient shorelines, we have healthy fisheries. And I think all of those things are absolutely possible.
Q: You’ve said you are among a new generation of Bay leaders, such as those at the Chesapeake Bay Commission and EPA Bay Program office. What do you bring to this effort that’s new or different?
A: Well, like many of the new Bay leaders, I’ve gotten to be part of and watch the last 40 years of effort, science [and] restoration. So, I’m pretty clear on the challenges that we face. But also we are optimistic, determined, and I think we also are collaborative. We’re all talking all the time, and I think that those relationships and collaboration will set us apart…. We all know that we stand on the shoulders of the first generation to really raise the alarms about the Bay. We are now taking the baton and need to look at new and creative ways of leading, trying different things, making new mistakes and really building a future that we can all be excited about.
Q: You’ve described Adam Ortiz, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator, as a “wonderful partner.” What does that mean? CBF is part of a lawsuit accusing the EPA of not doing enough to get Pennsylvania on track with its share of pollution reductions.
A: It means that we’ve had really productive conversations about the current lawsuit…. I think the EPA is in good hands right now. I think they’re doing a lot of important work, specifically behind the scenes, talking with leaders in Pennsylvania and really understanding the problems that Pennsylvania faces. And I think that’s exactly what the EPA should be doing, in addition to holding the states accountable and making sure that the EPA is there to enforce the laws.
Q: After years of debate and inaction, Pennsylvania last year created the state’s first dedicated source of clean water funding. But it comes from federal money and isn’t nearly enough to close the state’s funding gap for Bay restoration work. What’s happened with that since?
A: The Clean Streams Fund was a really important down payment and a moment for leadership for Pennsylvania. But it was a down payment. There’s so much more that Pennsylvania needs to do. Pennsylvania is one of our biggest challenges.
But I also think it’s a huge opportunity, especially when Pennsylvanians are leading. And I see a lot of really great leadership in Lancaster County right now, building community-based plans that are defined by people who live there. Community based organizations, members of our team [and businesses are] all pulling together to figure out what Lancaster needs to do to protect its rivers and streams.
When we see that kind of effort, it gives me a lot of hope. That’s the way things are going to change.
Q: What would you put in a new Bay agreement if you were creating it? How would you craft it?
A: I’d make sure that it includes climate mitigation goals in addition to climate adaptation goals. We’re not going to save the Bay without addressing the climate crisis. I think we need to take a hard look at toxics and other chemicals of concern…. We need to really focus on growing the monitoring data. And we should really be focused on our biggest challenges and our biggest opportunities, which means a lot more thinking about agriculture and soil health.
One of our challenges is that we have really defined the Bay cleanup based on nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Now we have an opportunity to look more broadly at a number of other issues. As we are updating the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, that’s a huge opportunity to look past nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment into other issues and really redefine what it means to save the Bay.