henever Sherri Evans-Stanton opens the spigot in her Wilmington home, she thinks about work. That might make some people hydrophobic, but her job as director of the Brandywine Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center is all about making drinking water, well, safe to drink.
The Brandywine Creek is the main source of public water in northern New Castle County and nearby Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Brandywine Conservancy, founded in 1967, is a non-profit watchdog of the waterway, protecting the land it nurtures and drains. The conservancy also oversees the Brandywine River Museum, with its collection of American art, including works by three generations of the Wyeth family.
Evans-Stanton, a Texas native, has headed the Environmental Management Center in Chadds Ford for the past six years. Before that, she served as Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s biodiversity coordinator, acting as a liaison between organizations, helping to set environmental priorities for the governor’s Livable Delaware initiative.
“One of the things I really enjoy is working on complex problems or projects, where you have to bring in people who represent all different sides and try to forge a compromise that meets the goals of the project, but also can get support from the larger group,” she says.
The Brandywine is fed by a 560-mile network of tiny streams and tributaries that drain an area of 325 square miles. Only a hair more than 7 percent of that territory is in Delaware. The creek picks up pollutants from farms, industries and thousands of households en route to its confluence with the Christina River in Wilmington.
The EMC promotes simple measures like planting trees and leaving a buffer of vegetation along stream banks, but it also offers comprehensive planning assistance for communities, working with landowners to put aside open space through deed restrictions, called easements. Since the conservancy’s founding, more than 43,000 acres have been saved from development. These are not small accomplishments. The watershed sprawls across four counties in two states, comprising close to 20 townships and municipalities and thousands of privately owned parcels of land, each governed by a jigsaw puzzle of laws, ordinances, mandates and competing self-interests.
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In December, for example, The Brandywine Conservancy and Honey Brook Township in Chester County jointly purchased a 68-acre conservation easement that was placed on a private property at the headwaters of the West Branch of the Brandywine. Protecting the 40 acres of mature woodland and 28 acres of farmland helps ensure water quality, as well as some plant species of “special concern” to the Pennsylvania Biological Survey.
“It’s extremely complex,” says conservancy trustee Heather Evans, who serves on the environmental committee. She describes Evans-Stanton as a tireless manager with the legal and technical savvy to work with all sides of an issue and who respects the expertise of her staff. And “she is quite passionate.”
“The misconception is that this is a locally focused group,” Evans says. “There are federal, state and local issues that she keeps on top of.”
Evans-Stanton has a national reputation, says George A. “Frolic” Weymouth, chairman of the board and one of the conservancy’s founders. That reputation is an asset for an organization that has been a model for dozens of conservation groups across the country. “We are very lucky to have her,” he says. “She can be tough when she wants to be, and you need that.”
Evans-Stanton moved to Delaware eight years ago from North Carolina, where she had been senior staff attorney with that state’s general assembly. She also served as a consultant to the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust.
On her desk, a cobalt blue mug with Jocassee Gorges printed in bold white letters reminds her of her last years in North Carolina. By then she had been appointed to the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, first as assistant secretary for natural resources, then as deputy secretary for policy and programs.
The Jocassee Gorges area is a pristine piece of real estate in the easternmost rain forest in the United States. The area encompasses raging rivers and spectacular waterfalls. Though part of the area was slated to become mountainside home sites, the governor favored preservation. Preservation became a priority that had to be balanced with the owner’s property rights and without alienating sportsmen who hunted in the area. It’s now a state park. Evans-Stanton calls it “one of our biggest accomplishments.”
Leaving North Carolina was “tough,” Evans-Stanton says, but her home in Delaware is a short walk from Brandywine Creek State Park. “That was a factor when we moved,” she says. Her husband, Mark Stanton, was offered a full professorship at the University of Delaware, so staying in North Carolina was not an option.
“I loved Chapel Hill,” Evans-Stanton says. “But I’ve looked at each move as an adventure. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do at the time, but I found some interesting things, and it led to this job, and I just love it. And [Delaware] really feels like home now.”
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This is her third move. At the University of Texas at Austin, she met her husband, a graduate student in psychology, while she was working toward her bachelor’s degree, also in psychology. They moved to California, where Mark pursued post-doctoral work at Stanford University. Sherri took a job as a paralegal doing regulatory work in the environmental section of a pharmaceutical company. She had planned to go into counseling after college, but discovered she enjoyed legal work. With the blessing of her employer, she earned a juris doctor degree at night from the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Evans-Stanton’s two children, Sarah, 21, and Jeffrey, 18, were both born in North Carolina. Sarah is now doing graduate work in psychology in Canada. Jeffrey is a sophomore at the University of Delaware. Like a typical mom, Evans-Stanton jokes that “I see him when he wants to wash his clothes or he needs money—or a home-cooked meal. That always works.”
She credits her friend Robin Karol with helping her make the adjustment to Delaware. “She adopted me,” says Evans-Stanton. Karol sees it differently, however. The day after the two met at Temple Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Karol had surgery, and though they barely knew each other, Evans-Stanton visited Karol every day, delivering homemade meals and encouragement until Karol got back on her feet. Their families have become so close that they own neighboring homes in the Poconos.
Evans-Stanton also connected with the community through her synagogue, serving on the committee that makes care baskets for homebound members and joining the board of the Gratz Hebrew School. ”Her knowledge and ability to jump onto committees and get the job done is something I can rely on,” says Karol. “If she can’t do it, she will tell you. A lot of people will say yes, but then not follow through.”
Evans-Stanton rarely uses “I” when referring to the work the conservancy has accomplished. But she has recently been the prime mover in two significant undertakings. Last year she guided the conservancy to accreditation by the Land Trust Alliance, making it one of the first groups to earn the national seal of approval. It took a year of arduous documentation and comparing current land data with some that were 40 years old.
She also recently became concerned with a federal bill to create a national energy grid that would drive massive power lines through open spaces, including conservancy land on the Brandywine. With the credibility of the conservancy—and her own reputation—Evans-Stanton hopes to get alternative proposals to the table.
“One of the purposes of protecting a property is the scenic vista, and if you look out and see these beautiful rolling hills and all of a sudden you have power lines all over the place, it defeats the purpose of protecting the property,’’ she says. Besides, “With national security being an issue, you would think a national grid would not be a wise thing.”
It’s probably safe to say that with everything the Brandywine Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center is dealing with, a lot of thoughts go through her mind when Evans-Stanton turns on the faucet. And, yes, she says, “I drink tap water.”