Policymaking is Hard

The City of Richmond is planning a million dollar restoration of the Reedy Creek waterway, one of the little offshoots of the James River that dot the Greater Richmond area. The city's Department of Public Utilities probably expected opposition, because you can't spend that kind of money in city government without SOMEBODY getting upset. So who are they fighting - business interests? Taxpayers worried about waste? Developers and local homeowners? Not exactly... how about a pro-river, pro-environment, non-profit group?

Citizen coalition and non-profit groups, particularly the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, have spent years getting local governments to pay attention to the effects of water runoff. They've worked with these governments, local homeowners and businesses to try to reduce the amount of pollution that gets into Virginia's rivers and, eventually, the Bay itself. [Full disclosure: I used an Alliance grant program to plant a rain garden in my front yard a few years ago. I still haven't killed all the plants yet.] Less pollution is better for the health of the whole system of waterways, as well as local and state economies fed by crabbing and similar industries.

One of the Alliance's local partners is the Reedy Creek Coalition in Richmond. Reedy Creek is a roughly 4-mile long tributary of the James River located on the south side of Richmond. There's been a lot of support in Richmond for river and stream restoration, and the city's portion of the James has a magnificent park system that's been remarkably improved over the past few decades. So you might think the city's project on the creek would have lots of support.

However, the Coalition has -- for the first time -- decided to oppose a major restoration effort. They've posted detailed objections to the plan, but the gist is this: the city is rushing into this, half-assing a clean-up based on convenience. They've picked a spot for restoration that is too far downstream and won't prevent enough run-off, and could be at risk from stormwaters, undoing all of the city's work. The city told the Alliance that the site was chosen "because the city owned all of the property and would not have to obtain easements from private property owners." But just because the city owns the land doesn't mean it's the best place to do this kind of project -- or that the project should be done at all.

This entire mishegas demonstrates the problem of governing and policymaking. On the one hand, there are political incentives for the city to be doing something about a problem, thanks in part to pressure from these non-profit stakeholders and the citizens they represent. There's money available - the state Department of Environmental Quality is offering matching grants, probably on a timetable (so use it or lose it). And there's probably even a desire among city officials to do the right thing; as much as we vilify government bureaucrats, studies consistently show that public sector workers care about their jobs (although with different rewards) as much as private sector workers. The city even has a whole website -- way nicer than the city's official (and terrible) website -- devoted to protecting the city's waterways, a testament to the effective politicking from groups like the Coalition.

On the other hand, though, there's the need to get things right. Policymaking is an art more than a science, to be sure; but sometimes government officials are too focused on their particular job and not enough on the bigger picture. In this case, the City seems hell-bent on "improving" city waterways, even if their efforts would be better directed elsewhere, such as smaller projects and a longer-term plan for the creek's watershed.

The city held a public meeting this week, where Coalition members and local residents tried to talk them out of the project. It remains to be seen if the city will listen. If not, we'll see again the tragedy of good intentions directed towards government action. Policymaking is hard.