Race for Soil & Water Conservation District Board

Get to know the candidates, and the Board

Dana Barakat

Rhonda Bitterli

Christopher Koerner

Deborah Maddrell

Mary Strayhorne

In this year’s General Election, Fairfax County voters are asked to elect three directors to sit on the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District Board. The candidates’ campaigns mostly are self funded, without widespread use of campaign literature or advertising. Although on the ballot every four years, voters are often surprised to be faced with making a choice for this little understood seat. While the positions are considered non-partisan, and no party affiliations will appear on the ballot, political parties may, and have, endorsed candidates. The seats also are unusual in that they are elected but unsalaried. Seven contenders have put themselves forward to serve on the Board; three endorsed by the Democrat party, three by the Republican party, and one without party affiliation. Only one candidate is an incumbent.

WHAT IS THE FUNCTION of the Soil and Water Conservation Board (NVSWCD)? As with other county boards and commissions, this board is intended to promote two-way communication between citizens and county government. The Northern Virginia Board, one of 47 such boards across the commonwealth, takes direction from a state level board under the Department of Conservation & Recreation. It focuses attention on local land, water, and related natural resource conservation problems, and develops programs to address them. The Board serves as a source for general conservation and natural resource information, and approves soil and water conservation plans. Under their review purview are proposals submitted under the important Chesapeake Bay Act, and Tax Credit Programs; programs for which the Board has approval authority for resource management plans. The board also reviews proposals under The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP); a voluntary land retirement program that helps agricultural producers protect environmentally sensitive land, decrease erosion, restore wildlife habitat, and safeguard ground and surface water. The Board’s elected directors are supported by two appointed directors, which they select, and a technical staff. The group is involved in assisting residents with drainage and erosion, conservation, stormwater management, and stream restoration, soil surveys, watershed cleanups, the rain barrel program, and early detection of non-native, invasive plant species. Our District is one of few urban territories within the state; most Soil and Water boards serve rural concerns.

As part of the Connection’s continuing election coverage, we asked the seven candidates questions about their related experience, and why they felt suited to the position. Several have experience or education in conservation or engineering; others do not. We summarize the five responding candidate answers; two candidates, Edward W. Monroe Jr. and Mary Ellen Flynn, did not respond.

Questions for the Candidates

1. What do you feel best qualifies you for the position?

2. What volunteer experience do you have in conservation?

3. What top two issues require the Board’s priority?

4. Describe your campaign outreach efforts and funding? 

Dana H.Baraket (Falls Church)

Age - 32

Education: M.A., Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 2015; B.A. Government & International Relations, George Mason University, 2013

Current Position: Executive Director, National Arab Women’s Association; Strategic consultant; Conservation volunteer experience: Fogwater harvesting, Agadir, Morocco, Georgetown University

Baraket says her long residency in the county, and her “extensive work in community building, organizing, and advocacy” qualify her to serve on the board. She also indicates her “passion is educating and assisting underrepresented communities.”

Baraket’s top priorities for the Board are education and outreach, which she sees as “vital to embracing environmental stewardship.” She includes educating citizens on stormwater mitigation as one area of needed concentration. Another is to provide information on grants and programs offered. She says underrepresented communities tend to lack the information and tools to use the resources that could be available to them, though they are in dire need. Further, she sees education needs to go beyond residents; that “developers must be educated and provided the tools to make better choices.”

Baraket dedicates her campaign time to “getting the word out to faith and underrepresented communities, and organizing leaders.” She says she talks with them about the importance of “being good stewards of the environment,” hoping residents will pay as much attention to soil and water as to every other elected position. Baraket is endorsed by the Democratic Party.

Rhonda J. Bitterli (Annandale)

Age - declined to provide

Education: M.S., Soil & Water Science, University of Arizona; B.A. English, Minor: Computer Science, Mathematics, University of Arizona.

Current Position: Retired, project manager, senior analyst

Conservation volunteer experience: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, “Dig It! The Secret of Soils,” 2008-2010; Bikes for the World, [diversion from waste stream for reuse], (2014); NVSWCD, annual seedling sale, 2023

Bitterli points to her work experience in “various environmental arenas, including how hazardous waste sites are evaluated, domestic and international agriculture, municipal solid waste, and geothermal energy” as her qualifications to serve on the board, along with her educational background in soil and water science, and chemistry.

Bitterli’s top priorities: “One priority issue is stormwater management, and erosion and sediment control … especially as storms become more intense and flooding has become more frequent. A second priority is encouraging residents to take a more active role in addressing drainage and erosion problems on their residential property.” She says this takes “enhancing outreach efforts so that residents know about all the NVSWCD resources available to them.” She gives the example of the available website information on rain barrels, rain gardens, and use of native plant species, along with available technical guidance.

Bitterli’s campaign is self funded and does not accept donations. Her outreach includes attending events where candidates are invited to speak, including an upcoming forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters on Oct. 11. She has a website and is on social media. She developed a single page flyer which she asks people to photograph or scan the included QR code for more information “in keeping with my desire to be environmentally responsible.” She is endorsed by the Democratic Party. See rb-soilandwater.com

Christopher E. Koerner (Oakton) - Incumbent 

Age - 69

Education: B.S. Civil Engineering, Hydrology, University of Connecticut (1980); B.A, Chemistry, Biology, Colby College (1976) 

Current Position: Registered engineer; retired, environmental engineer; retired Diplomate, American Academy of Environmental Engineers

Conservation volunteer experience: Director/Treasurer, NVSWCD, 2019-2023; NVSWCD Associate Director/Secretary , 2017-2019; Sierra Club, since 1988, Executive Committee Chair, 2009-2012; Fairfax County Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance Exemption Review Committee Chair, 2016-2020; Vice-President HOA, 1996-present [with county award for community lake restoration]; Fairfax Master Naturalist, 2017-present.

Koerner, a retired environmental engineer with over 40 years experience “as a technical expert developing and implementing strategies to clean up toxic waste sites; particularly difficult groundwater contamination challenges” in the U.S., Europe, and South America. He includes in his experience, leading and participating in engineering teams on high-visibility projects at Fort Detrick, Md., and with anthrax contamination. He shares that his experience here and abroad “has strengthened my belief in environmental stewardship, and clarified the recognition that we all must do everything we can to preserve our beautiful, but fragile planet.”

For Koerner, his top priorities are “obtaining visibility and adequate financing to support our talented staff.” He cites areas in need of funding to include: stormwater damage with increasing impervious surfaces and more intense rainfall events; grants for homeowners, HOAs, and places of worship to adopt conservation practices; community gardens in underserved communities; and protecting our drinking water supply; among others. He considers it a priority to work on “continually improving community education and growing our diverse network of citizen, county, state, and federal environmental group partnerships.”

Koerner indicates his campaign outreach effort “is networking with environmental groups, speaking at public meetings to educate citizens on what the Board is and does, and helping HOAs and individual property owners solve environmental challenges.” His campaign is self-funded, with minimal paper handouts and signs, “in order to reduce the environmental impact of the campaign.” He is endorsed by the Democratic Party. 

Debra O. Maddrell (Vienna)

Age - declined to provide

Education: M. Sc., National Security Strategy, National Defense University; B. A., History, French, Capital University

Current Position: Retired, U.S. Naval Officer

Conservation volunteer experience: None

Maddrell, a retired naval officer, points to experience in positions she held within the service in which she had responsibility for assuring naval vessels complied with federal and state regulations, to protect the St. John River and Mayport Harbor Basin, as qualifying experience. Also, that in Japan, her responsibility as installation head required compliance with Japanese land use and conservation regulations. She would rely on the “appointed members who bring the needed technical expertise to the table.” She sees her role as “representing the interests and concerns of the taxpayers and citizens.”

Top issues: Maddrell sees “mitigating the destructive impact of utility scale solar farms on forests and green spaces,” as her highest priority. She wants to work with State legislators to address solar farm impacts, by forcing utility compliance with State environmental quality regulations. She favors use of rooftop solar energy installations on commercial buildings, and would urge the Board of Supervisors to amend building codes to encourage them. Her second priority is to counter the effects of road runoff. She favors use of permeable cool road technologies, which she says would “improve stormwater management, reflect more solar energy, reducing ambient heat on urban roadways by 10 to 15 degrees.” 

Maddrell describes her campaign as “self-funded. My primary outreach effort is at the community level and through social media.” She is endorsed by the Republican Party.

Mary E. Strayhorne (Falls Church)

Age: 43

Education: Master of Law (L.L.M.), American University (2014);

J. D., Law, Faulkner University (2011);

B.A., American Studies, Queen's University (2007);

Associate of Science (A.S.), Multimedia & Web Design, Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale (2002).

Current career position: Consultant, management,     contracting, public interest. 

Conservation volunteer experience: None

Strayhorne says “There is more to conservation than just having technical knowledge in the science behind conservation efforts — it is also important to effectively communicate the soil and water needs to stakeholders … Without the money and support from stakeholders to implement the advice of the Board, sustainable maintenance is a plan without action or results.” 

Stayhorne says her top priorities are to “Expand education outreach to inform the public on best practices, relating to over fertilizing and yard management, to effectively mitigate their impact on our environment that has led to a rampant increase in invasive species. And to help the board obtain additional funding from various sources, including from our new partners in commerce, to support conservation efforts …” She points to current issues with invasive species and the need to “bring our community green spaces into a healthy, sustainable state of maintenance …”

Strayhorne indicates the majority of her campaign time is spent “connecting with constituents and members of our community who have the expertise and understanding of what the issues facing soil and water are at present, and constituent concerns.” In coming weeks, she expects to participate in forums, attend local events, such as back-to-school nights and football games, and reach out to women’s voting and Latino community groups. She is working with other Republican candidates for Board of Supervisors and school board on conservation planning and education outreach. She is endorsed by the Republican Party. See strayhornefornova@aol.com 

Editor’s Note: The League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area will host a virtual NVSWCD candidate forum on Oct. 11, 7 p.m.; to register go to https://www.lwv-fairfax.org/. Find other League candidate forums held Oct 2 to Oct 16 at the same site.