Leaving a Clean Water Legacy

by Tom Damm

Jon Capacasa

Jon Capacasa

As you approached Jon Capacasa’s office, the first thing you noticed were the articles, notes and other tidbits of progress and encouragement taped to his door, centered with the words, “Celebrate! Celebrate!”

During Jon’s more than 42-year career at EPA, including the past 13 years as director of the Mid-Atlantic Region’s Water Protection Division, there was much to celebrate in his commitment to clean water.

Jon retired this week having served as a leading figure in the major initiatives and innovative actions that distinguished the region in improving water resources and public health.

His biggest impact was on the Chesapeake Bay – from the time on a Sunday in 1990 when he was called at home and asked to serve as the Bay’s Special Assistant to the Regional Administrator.

From there, he helped to start the Chesapeake Bay Program Office, served for a year as its first acting director and then nine years as its deputy director, guided the planning and drafting of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, and had a chief role in developing and implementing the landmark Chesapeake Bay TMDL, or “pollution diet.”

Along the way, Jon issued a nutrient permitting approach that helped the wastewater sector achieve its Bay pollution goals 10 years ahead of schedule – topping the list of positive signs of Bay progress that include sharp increases in bay grasses, blue crabs and oysters, a majority of cleaner running rivers and a shrinking “dead zone.”

But Jon’s career has involved far more than the Bay.

Among his hallmark achievements, Jon co-founded the Schuylkill Action Network and helped form other key partnerships to protect source waters, established three of the top five penalty actions in Clean Water Act history, led efforts to restore streams and rivers – from the Delaware to the “forgotten” Anacostia, drove new technologies, and was a pioneer in the green infrastructure movement to control stormwater pollution and improve communities.

Jon is quick to acknowledge the team effort involved in his work, taking pride in the positive reinforcement he provides to staff to achieve incremental success and “turn great ideas into reality.”

The office items Jon packed up over the past few days are a reflection of his career as well as his approach to the job and life in general.  Among them were:

  • A framed copy of the Bay TMDL cover with a pen used to sign it.
  • Photos of his family and one of Roberto Clemente, a boyhood baseball hero, whose creativity, excellence and low-key manner served as an inspiration.
  • A host of plaques and awards.
  • An “Easy” button that was rarely pressed considering the tough decisions he was involved in on a seemingly daily basis.

As he steps away from what he called “the greatest mission in the world” to relish more time with his family and do some teaching and traveling, his legacy of clean water will continue on at EPA, as will his impact on the lives of people across the region.


About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

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