Matt RotaSenior Policy Director at Healthy Gulf

Matt Rota

New Orleans, Louisiana

Matt is the senior policy director for Healthy Gulf. In this role, he advocates for healthy waters throughout the Gulf of Mexico region. He also works with Mississippi River Basin organizations to promote policies that will reduce the Dead Zone-causing pollution flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. Matt currently focuses on water pollution issues in Louisiana, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico, working to ensure adequate policies regarding the BP oil drilling disaster, wetlands, water quality, and nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are adopted and implemented in order to protect and restore waters of the Gulf of Mexico region. He is Co-Chair of the Nutrients Workgroup for the Mississippi River Collaborative and has given numerous presentations on water pollution issues including the Dead Zone, sewage pollution, wetlands, and the BP Oil Drilling Disaster, at professional and technical conferences throughout the country. He earned his B.S. in Ecology, Evolutionary, and Organismal Biology from Tulane University and his Masters of Earth and Environmental Resources Management from the University of South Carolina, and previously worked for Trout Unlimited.

This interview was published on December 20, 2019.

Tell me about your role at Healthy Gulf.

I am the senior policy director at Healthy Gulf. I’ve been here, working in our New Orleans office for 14 and a half years. Basically my whole time here I’ve been working in one shape or form on water quality and wetland protection policy, revolving a lot around the Clean Water Act (CWA) but also coastal restoration. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I became a bit of an expert on oil pollution and dispersants during the BP drilling disaster. But all of this has so much to do with water quality and wetlands.

When I go to River Rally, I get to talking with people about their watersheds. It’s interesting when the conversation comes around to me because my watershed is the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Drainage Basin alone is one third of the United States. The scale of the watershed I work on can be daunting, but it’s kind of neat because I get to work with all kinds of people and organizations. Similar to River Network, so many of the good things that happen in the Gulf is because of all these good people doing good work.

You mentioned the daunting nature of the sheer scope of your watershed and the communities and ecosystems affected. What are some of the other challenging aspects of your work?

I would say the most challenging aspect of our work is working in the Gulf South: Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. These states have been ground zero for every kind of pollution from wetland loss (about a football field every hour) and Cancer Alley is just upstream. There are dozens of petrochemical and fertilizer facilities polluting the air and water in these communities, which are primarily African American. It’s just a microcosm of what happens in so many areas of the Gulf. Whether you’re attributing it to racism, industry, or the fact that we are located at the mouth of many rivers, we have a disproportionate amount of pollution down here that really impacts communities that are so dependent on the resources that are being polluted. And yet, outside of Florida, we are not getting the good political attention the Gulf South deserves.

Our politics are often not environmentally friendly. It’s always interesting talking to colleagues across the country working on watershed issues. Hearing the things people are able to fight for is incredible. The policies that they are able to say “this isn’t good enough” to, I would be so thankful to have in our states just because we’re so behind when it comes to basic protections for our waters and communities.

We are hearing a lot about municipalities and cities, particularly in the Northwest, being successful in advocating for bodies of water to be granted rights. Does this sound like a ridiculous idea for you to pursue in the states you work in?

Absolutely, but full support! I certainly don’t want to degrade others’ work because it’s awesome! In Louisiana, it’s crazy to think that people can walk into a legislature and not get laughed at or ignored with an idea like that.

What are some other policies that the Gulf is lacking that other states have in abundance?

A big part of it is the stranglehold that the oil and gas industry has on the Gulf States. It trumps the environment every time. It’s ironic that these are the poorest states in the country, but they’re saying we need more pollution as long as we’re getting jobs. The basic idea is that if we don’t support oil and gas, all the jobs will disappear. If this is the argument, we need to ask why we are not the richest region in the country if having all these polluting industries in our states is good for our economy.

Given the scope of your watershed and the constraints of your state’s politics, what are some of the things that keep you motivated in this work?

There is just so much work to do and so many issues that need to be fought for, and there are so few groups doing it. We have some amazing partners, but we need 3 or 4 times that to really do more of our job. But it’s very rewarding work when we do get wins.

I had a tough moment sitting at an airport several years ago. I was going to a meeting and came to the realization that if I wasn’t doing what I was doing, literally no one would be doing it. Thinking about some of the policies I review, nobody would have looked at these from an environmental standpoint if Healthy Gulf wasn’t around. This reflects the importance and urgency of our work. We’re just vital in building and maintaining the movement and giving communities resources. It is tough and rewarding.

Healthy Gulf is working to resist the roll back of regulations critical to increasing safety and environmental protection.

What win are you most proud of in your career?

On a large scale, organizationally I am proud of all the work Healthy Gulf did after the two region-defining disasters we’ve experienced here: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the BP drilling disaster in 2010. Healthy Gulf was really able to put out the importance of our coastal wetlands and hold BP and others accountable to be sure that the restoration funds would come back to the Gulf and this disaster wouldn’t be swept under the rug. Healthy Gulf has a long list of victories that we’re extremely proud of.

You were heavily involved in the Clean Water Guide trainings led by Gayle Killam. What was that like and what did these trainings look like in their day?

This was back in 2006. I went to one of Gayle’s Train the Trainers workshops on the Clean Water Act. That was where I was really introduced to her Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual and is where I really started learning about the Clean Water Act. If I had to point to one core thing that wraps all my work in my time at Healthy Gulf, a lot of it is centered on that workshop. That first session was seminal to what I do on a daily basis. I reference the Owner’s Manual so many times. When I have legal interns, one of the first things I do is have them review the relevant statues and the relevant sections of the manual.

Rachel Conn in New Mexico said the same thing! She gives the manual to new staff and interns on their first day.

The first place I met Rachel was at Train the Trainers in Alabama. If I had to cite one thing that River Network has done for me, it would be that training.

How did this training ripple through your community? Who did you train?

I’ll give you an example. There was a school teacher on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain who gave me a call and said he was having pollution issues in the Little Tchefuncte River that flowed by his family’s property. There were some sewage and development issues. Using what I learned from Gayle, the CWA Owner’s Manual, and through other interactions with CWA experts, I walked him through the process. We went over discharge monitoring reports and draft permits and introduced him to the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. We ended up filing a lawsuit against the sewage treatment plant that was giving him problems. Now, he alerts me of things that are going on. I just got a call from him today about this new consent order on the north shore that is problematic. He has already done a public records request and gone through other procedures. He actually started his own watershed group. A lot of that stems from being able to convey principles behind the Clean Water Act and understanding the power that it gives to the people.