Issues Of The Environment: Women's History Month-Janis Bobrin

Mar 31, 2021

Janis Bobrin
Credit Michigan League of Conservation Voters / michiganlcv.org

For 24 years, Janis Bobrin served Washtenaw County as Water Resources Commissioner.  Some of the programs she devised and implemented are now industry standard and the positive environmental impacts she's had in our community are quite tangible.  For the final Women's History Month edition of "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair speaks with Bobrin about her remarkable career and the lasting impacts she has had on the health of our environment and quality of life. 


Overview

  • Janis Bobrin served as Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner from 1989 until she stepped down in 2012, after being elected six times.  She established partnerships with other county departments (and environmental agencies) that have provided a model for cooperation in environmental planning and advocacy that has been picked up nationwide.  Many of the agencies and departments that worked across lines with Washtenaw County were also led by women. 
  • Washtenaw County government has been a model of what can be done for the environment at the local level.  Janis says, “We always worked across department lines and formed deep partnerships, with environmental health, planning, MSU Extension, and local governments.  We started programs that became models for the EPA, and were implemented across the country.” 
  • An early example: After the Bhopal disaster (toxic gas leak) in India, and just before Bobrin arrived in office, Washtenaw County, led by Dr. Rebecca Head, some dedicated county commissioners and in partnership with the Ecology Center, became the first and only county government to enact a local ordinance that gave us the authority to inspect and track all industrial and commercial facilities that used and stored hazardous chemicals, to make sure they were in compliance with all regulations, and to make sure first responders would be prepared to respond should leaks, spills, or emergencies occur.  (Originally called “Right to Know,” it’s now our P2 Program).  This was a huge advance in local leadership in protecting public health and the environment.  
  • Under Janis, the mission of the “Drain Commissioner’s” office evolved significantly.  She says, “When I took office in 1989, no one talked about stormwater runoff or impervious surfaces.  Or thought very much about how everything that happens on the land determines the quality of our local rivers, lakes, and streams.  Stormwater management was only about flood prevention (maybe) and not at all about water quality protection.  Using models from research being done in Chesapeake Bay, Washington State, we adopted new standards for development that prevented flooding, and also required stormwater quality treatment and stream channel protection.  We educated local planners, engineers and elected officials, and got most communities to use these standards.  Today, water quality protection is an integral part of land use and development decisions.”
  • Janis says of her tenure, “So much of what I was able to do was because of the citizens of Washtenaw County.  It really is different here.  Colleague Drain and Water Resources Commissioners from other counties would ask me how I could do what I did.  The fact is, folks here aren’t just willing to pay a little extra for protecting the environment...they expect and demand it.  After all, Earth Day started here.”
  • Janis faced a monumental challenge from polluter Gelman that is still with us 30 years later.  She says, “I began dealing with the Gelman groundwater contamination back in 1989/90, and it’s still with us today.  We were dealing with a company back then that chose to fight rather than to act on a cleanup while the situation was probably still manageable. " 
  • Janis initiated and grew many important programs and partnerships that are still going strong.  One of those partnerships is WEMU’s “Issues of the Environment'', which celebrated 25 years in 2020!  The one-of-a-kind, weekly radio program during Morning Edition keeps residents of the greater-Washtenaw County region continuously informed about environmental concerns in the locality.  David Fair and Donna Southwell (from County Emergency Management) kicked off the series, followed by Barbara Lucas (“The Green Room”), and Mary Mathias Lapp for the past eight years. 

Programs of Washtenaw County Water Resources

Some of the programs and projects over Bobrin's tenure: 

  • Adopt a Stream (handed over to HRWC) got citizens actively involved in waterway protection, with huge positive outcomes
  • Watershed Management Planning and implementation, including major stream restoration projects
  • Native landscapes and rain garden programs
  • The County’s Natural Areas Preservation Program with a millage to secure land and easements in perpetuity.
  • Time of Sale Septic System Inspection Program
  • Home toxics collection center and regular collection program

Janis Bobrin

Janis Bobrin has 45 years’ experience working on water quality protection and stormwater management with local, county, regional and state governments and agencies.  She served as Washtenaw County’s Water Resources Commissioner (formerly “Drain Commissioner”) from 1989 until she stepped down in 2012, after being elected six times.  Major responsibilities of that office include:

  • Construction, financing, operation and maintenance of the County’s 600 storm water systems,
  • Management of county lake levels and operation and maintenance of related infrastructure,
  • Promulgating standards for stormwater system design and construction,
  • Review and approval of storm water system design in new developments, with a focus on managing water quality and quantity impacts,
  • Development and implementation of watershed management plans,
  • Development and implementation of programs to meet federal stormwater management (permit program) mandates,
  • Compliance programs for site-specific mandates for water quality improvement (“Total Maximum Daily Loads”).

Janis implemented numerous projects focused on low impact, sustainable approaches to stormwater management, public education initiatives designed to promote behavior change and an ethic of environmental stewardship, and numerous stream restoration projects.

Janis also managed Washtenaw County’s Public Works Department, which is responsible for engineering, financing, and managing construction of sanitary sewer, drinking water, and other infrastructure, and operated the County’s Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control program.

Prior to joining Washtenaw County, Janis worked for 13 years as an environmental planner and manager of water quality programs for SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, where she managed regional watershed management planning and implementation and was responsible for projects related to surface and groundwater protection, development of state environmental policy and legislation, and state environmental impact review.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu