Kathy Phillips grew up on Chesapeake Bay, sailing and surfing in Maryland’s waters. For the past 37 years, Philips has called Worcester County home. Since moving to the Eastern Shore, she and her husband made it a goal to be on the water as often as possible. Phillips even served as the Executive Director of the Eastern Surfing Association and has been inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame.

And who can blame her for loving the waters of this region?

Salt Grass Point in Worcester County. Photo by Lee Cannon.

Assateague Island, a barrier island off the Delmarva Peninsula, is perhaps the best known spot in the region. Split between Maryland and Virginia, Assateague’s qualities have long been the inspiration of salty legends and maritime stories. The island looks like an ivory comb brushing through paradise-blue hair.

Assateague Island’s only residents are the wildlife – where else do you step around courting piping plovers and wild ponies lolling in the sand so you can go for a swim?

Year after year Assateague Island’s pristine beaches are ranked among the cleanest in the U.S.  It’s hard not to feel goosebumps surfing between bottlenose dolphins and hammerhead sharks in the clear water.

Trouble in paradise

While the waters on ocean side of the barrier island usually meet state standards, the back bays and creeks of Worcester County are plagued with water quality issues caused by runoff from agriculture, construction sites, and sewage discharge. In fact, sediment, nutrients, toxins, bacteria, and other contaminants from stormwater runoff are the greatest source of pollution in Worcester’s watershed.

After a heavy rainfall or a high tide, bacteria counts can be 100% percent higher than normal due to the runoff. The lack of implementation of the EPA’s stormwater regulations is exacerbating the problem.

As the only advocacy group on Maryland’s lower eastern shore, Assateague Coastal Trust has its hands full trying to raise awareness of the water quality issues in the area. The focus of group’s work is the coastal bays and waterways tucked behind Assateague and Fenwick Island, west of Ocean City, MD. These include Assawoman Bay, St. Martin River, Isle of Wight Bay, Sinepuxent Bay, Newport Bay, and Chincoteague Bay; all of which are popular spots for recreational water users, enjoying their watershed on stand up paddle boards, boating, swimming, crabbing,and clamming.

Assawoman Bay at sunset. Photo by Geoff LMV on Flickr.

Kathy Phillips is the Assateague Coastkeeper and the executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT). She helps to monitor water quality in the coastal watershed of Assateague Island.

“Is it safe to enjoy the water?” is the most common question Phillips is asked.

Luckily, she has answers. A life on the water has taught Phillips a lot about the state of her local waters. She has witnessed first-hand the effects poor water quality have not just on human health but on all life residing in and around the coastal bays.

When Phillips ran for County Commissioner, she had the opportunity to engage in an intimate dialogue with her community. In the process, Phillips realized how many people shared her concerns about water quality and over development in the Worcester’s watershed.

She did not become County Commissioner. Instead, she became Assateague’s Coastkeeper, working full time to ensure the right to clean water is granted to everyone living in the watershed.

Taking action

Phillip’s priority is ensuring existing stormwater runoff regulations are abided and stricter rules for regulating pollutant discharge in Worcester’s water are introduced. In addition to her work with ACT and as Coastkeeper, she sits on the Maryland Stormwater Consortium and is part of the local Get the Dirt Out Project, an initiative by local Waterkeepers to protect the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays from damage caused by sediment-laden runoff from construction sites and land development. As if that weren’t enough, she also conducts weekly water quality monitoring tests for Ayers Creek, Isle of Wight Bay, St. Martin River, Herring Creek, and Turville Creek, sites not sampled by Worcester County.

Despite the busyness of resort activity and recreational water use in the bayside of Assateague Island, there is little awareness of the stormwater runoffs the headlands are generating. Moreover,  Phillips’s water quality monitoring and advocacy in the back bays is often met with resistance from bayside businesses who do not want poor water quality results discouraging customers from visiting their resorts and restaurants.

Undeterred, Phillips works tirelessly to make water quality issues known to her community, for their own safety as well as for the good of the creatures living in and around the watershed. Her efforts have not been in vain. Community volunteers are joining the Get the Dirt Out Project to monitor construction and development sites to ensure their compliance with stormwater regulations and with the launch of Assateague Swim Guide more and more people are aware of water quality in the bays and creeks.

Phillips knows an informed and engaged public makes for better stewards. Her commitment to her community members is empowering them to protect their right to swimmable, fishable, and drinkable water.

Thank you Kathy! Just like Assateague Island, your work is an inspiring coastal treasure.

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