South River Federation puts watershed pro in charge

By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer
Published March 25, 2008

Joshua McKerrow - The Capital Matt Berres is the South River Federation's first executive director. He started manning the deck last month and hopes to help people learn more about what they can do to help the health of the river.

Matt Berres cut his river teeth helping grow the Potomac Conservancy from a fledgling outfit hoping to preserve a small stretch of that river into a group programmed to preserve the waterway from Point Lookout to the Fairfax Stone. Last month, he took hold of fresh reins as the first executive director of the South River Federation, itself a growing group set on turning that watershed around.

"Since Matt has in-depth experience with watershed groups, he has been able to hit the ground running - he's already getting us organized to be more effective," said Federation President Kincey Potter.

And that is just one of the goals Mr. Berres has set for this first year.

While he still is learning the river, the organization is setting out to complete more oyster and shoreline restoration projects, build stormwater-filtering buffers to protect Broad Creek, help Beard's Creek residents build rain gardens, and establish better connections with watershed community groups. All that while monitoring river conditions and keeping an eye out for Critical Area and other violations. And the list goes on.

He said he hopes to sharpen the organization's focus. "We know what we are good at. We are ready for challenges," he said. But he wants to help address weaknesses, too. "We can be overly ambitious. We can't try to do everything. We need to focus on doing the right things well."

Mr. Berres, 33, grew up in Michigan and came to Washington D.C. while pursuing his undergraduate political science degree. It was then he took to first the Potomac, then other rivers in the region, and the Chesapeake Bay.

"These rivers are so much wilder," he said noting the majestic power of Great Falls.

After working for a group that studied and championed the work of grass roots organizations he learned how effective they could be.

That attracted him to take a job with the Potomac Conservancy, then with a 2.5 person staff and a $200,000 budget. The group wanted to keep trees from being cut along the Potomac Gorge, from Great Falls to Georgetown.

"We were crammed in an office in Annandale. It was so small we had the computer on a rolling cart so we could put it in the hallway so a third person could fit in the room," he recalled.

Six and half years later the Conservancy grew to a $1.5 million budget, and instead of just working to stop cutting trees along 10 miles of the river, they had helped establish some 10,000 acres of protected land along the full length of the river from the headwaters in West Virginia to the mouth of the river 383 miles downstream at Point Lookout.

He left the Conservancy after reaching a now-or-never decision on pursuing a master's degree. He and his wife Elaina, a biology teacher in Montgomery County, live in Bowie. He expects to finish at Johns Hopkins with an MBA in non-profit management later this year.

The federation board moved last spring to begin looking for an executive director to take over day-to-day operations of the organization that had consumed more than full-time hours of volunteer board members.

It's a big step for the organization that a few years ago was meeting in a borrowed community center.

Mr. Berres realizes that in the 66-square-miles that comprise the South River watershed there is not the opportunity to grow like the Potomac conservancy did within it's 15,679 square mile drainage area.

"But we can grow deeper, he said. "There is an opportunity to get people to realize the impact they have on the river, and act accordingly."

He doesn't think he could find anyone in favor or more pollution or runoff entering the river, but for many there is a disconnect between their homes and day-to-day activity and the river.

"Some might know all about the small creek running near their house, they will know if something is wrong there," he said. "But downstream they might not know what is going on."

He thinks many people living up in Crofton don't realize their properties drain into the South River. Education and public outreach is crucial.

"The health of the river is directly tied to how people live on the land," he said. The trick is to make all aware of that.

One example of how the federation is seeking to tackle that task is a "targeted watershed program," focused this year on two areas.

In the Beard's Creek watershed, the South River Federation will help homeowner's pay the cost of building rain gardens to keep runoff from rushing into the creek.

In Broad Creek, with cooperation from the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the county's health department, they will build stormwater retention structures to catch runoff from those agencies' parking lots off Truman Parkway.

"It is a pilot program. If it is successful we can duplicate it elsewhere around the watershed ," he said. "It will help show people they can take action that has a positive effect downhill from their property into the creek, the South River, to the Chesapeake Bay."

And Mr. Berres's goal is to lead the South River Federation to meet that and other challenges.

"There is a lot of support for the river. This organization, I think, is a reflection of that passion," he said. "We want this organization to grow to become synonymous with the health of the resource."

And people involved in the effort are anxious to begin that fight with him.

"I am really excited to have him on board," said South Riverkeeper Drew Koslow. "He's a river guy, a conservationist, and really enthusiastic. It is great to have another body and someone who is a proven leader in the field."

(Revised Mar 2008)