Lawyer works to restore Chesapeake Bay
Peggy Sanner lives “in the woods” in Henrico County, but her heart is in the Chesapeake Bay.
Sanner is the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Virginia operations, headquartered in Richmond. She supervises 25 employees who work in Richmond, Virginia Beach, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and Eastern Shore. (CBF’s main office is in Annapolis, Maryland.)
Her dream is a healthy Chesapeake Bay, a waterbody that holds about 18 trillion gallons of water. Around 18 million people live, work and recreate in the 64,000 square-mile watershed that stretches 524 miles from Cooperstown, New York, to Norfolk, Virginia.
But the Bay is a “system dangerously out of balance,” according to the CBF website. Its blue crab populations have hit a record low, the lowest count since tracking began in 1990, a May survey reported.
Oyster harvests have declined to less than one percent of historic levels. And while Bay water quality and vegetation have improved, the Bay got a D+ grade in 2021.
To Sanner, these metrics, while disappointing, are challenges that get her out of bed every day, motivating her to make the Chesapeake Bay’s recovery the world’s greatest success story.
Margaret Sanner has been nicknamed Peggy since age six. She grew up in Cumberland, Maryland, received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Swarthmore College, a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a law degree from Rutgers University. Her husband, Carl Tobias, teaches torts and constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University.
She started as a staff attorney at CBF in 2010. Prior to that, she worked in commercial litigation at several law firms.
She had her first opportunity to be an environmental litigator at a Montana firm on a case involving municipal landfills that were contaminating groundwater. Her second case was a highway widening near Las Vegas which would lead to more cars and hence more pollution.
Sanner now leads the Foundation’s efforts to use science, the law and advocacy to achieve a healthier Bay. She helps implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, an overarching plan prepared by the six Bay states and Washington, D.C., to reduce pollution.
Sanner also leads legal and advocacy efforts in Virginia — filing lawsuits when needed, negotiating settlements and persuading elected officials to support cleanup efforts.
Humans and pollution
“All human activities generate pollution, like nitrogen and phosphorus, beyond what’s normally in the environment,” she explained. Much of that pollution ends up in the Bay.
One glaring example of how human activities degrade the Bay is stormwater. “Polluted stormwater runoff flowing off impervious surfaces like urban and suburban streets is rising,” Sanner pointed out.
Rainwater pushes trash, nitrogen, phosphorus, fecal bacteria, viruses, petroleum products, toxic metals and road salt into waterways, for example.
The extra nutrients in runoff cause algae to bloom, multiply and die, which leads to dead zones in the Bay, insufficient oxygen for fish to survive, and fewer underwater grasses to grow, according to Sanner.
And more and more development “threatens the forested areas that keep our cities cool,” she said.
CBF scientists have developed some of the most highly sophisticated models to help understand the Bay’s condition. The experts analyze pollution, chemistry, underwater grasses, fish, amphibians, farming practices and microplastics, for example.
Climate change is exacerbating many of the Bay’s problems. “The impacts of climate change — more frequent and intense storms, rising waters and increased flooding — threaten the progress already achieved, especially in underserved communities,” Sanner said.
Sanner’s peers admire her passion. “She is, hands down, an expert on the state and federal laws that provide the tools to clean up the Bay,” said Ann Jennings, former Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources for the Chesapeake Bay.
Sanner sees as her toughest challenge communicating the Bay ecosystem’s complexity and the multiple factors that affect water quality.
Some Richmonders, for example, likely do not readily realize that what they do on the land “ends up” in the James River and ultimately in the Bay.
The oldest sections of the city have century-old wastewater pipes that combine raw sewage and stormwater. Heavy rainfall can create an overflow of untreated sewage into waterways — what state Senator Siobhan Dunnavant told the Richmond Times-Dispatch are “brownouts, where you can’t go into the James River.”
Sanner describes her advocacy in the state legislature as “very challenging.” Her goal is “to help legislators understand why clean water and air are important to their districts,” she said, so she tries to find common ground.
It can be especially challenging to help a legislator from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley understand why farming practices or deforestation in that region can adversely affect the Bay.
After one of those legislators from the western part of the watershed visited the Bay, he said, “I get it.” Sanner relished that success.
She is the legislators’ “go-to” person on all things Bay, according to Jennings.
“Peggy is an effective and inspirational advocate for clean water, clean air and a restored Chesapeake Bay. She consistently works across the aisle to broker innovative, common ground solutions to complex natural resource challenges.
“Having witnessed Virginia legislators often asking, ‘What does Peggy recommend?’ it’s clear that Peggy is CBF in the General Assembly.”
Sanner loves being outside, as she reminiscences about her childhood in the mountains of western Maryland. She gets out on the water whenever she can, and decompresses by reading and baking bread.
“Leading the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia as it works to restore the Chesapeake Bay is an immense privilege,” she said.
“I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with Virginians in enhancing and protecting our natural resources, our vibrant communities and our quality of life.”
So are many others.