| Tracy Mehan heads D.C. office
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Tracy Mehan heads D.C. office

Maybe it’s destiny. Tracy Mehan is the great-great grandson of pioneering steamboat captain, Joseph LaBarge. He grew up in St. Louis at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and once sandbagged flooded levies near his hometown. 

He grasped the importance of water early on, and has spent much of his career caring for it.  He directed the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes and served as assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last month, he became head of AWWA’s Government Affairs Office in Washington D.C.

Mehan has a full agenda  – addressing cyanotoxins, improving the Water Infrastructure Finance & Innovation Act, and guiding AWWA’s new energy efficiency efforts in light of the new carbon regulations, to name a few of the issues.

“My immediate priority is getting my head around and becoming familiar with all the important work AWWA is doing,” Mehan said.

Another goal is helping AWWA members develop closer relationships with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and producer groups in order to improve source water protection and prevent hazardous algae blooms. A key source of cyanotoxin-producing blooms is nutrient pollution, especially nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural operations.

“At the end of the day, it comes back to what’s called non-point source pollution,” which is essentially unregulated. “So this requires a different set of tools, unlike a water and wastewater system that is subject to regulation. We’ve got to develop collaborative approaches.”

George Tracy Mehan is the oldest of five siblings, the son of a lawyer and stay-at-home mom. Early on, his family called him Tracy. “George is the name of my father and grandfather. Someone would say ‘George’ and three people would answer.” The rivers were never far from Mehan's consciousness, continuing after he graduated high school and into young adulthood. He has fond memories of extended float trips on the spring-fed rivers of Missouri's Ozarks.

“I was steeped in the lore of Mark Twain, of Lewis and Clark and of my ancestor, Capt. Joseph LaBarge,” Mehan said. “He set the record for the fastest steamboat run from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Montana, back before the dams were built in the 1850s.”

Mehan attended parochial school and St. Louis University, graduating with degrees in history and philosophy. He followed in his father’s career footsteps, earning a law degree in 1974 from SLU. He practiced law for 15 years before taking over the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. At the EPA, he managed the National Water Program encompassing both the Clean Water and Safe Water Drinking Acts.

Mehan cites two career highlights – attending the opening of the 200-mile Katy Trail, the longest rails-to-trails conversion in the country, which runs from St. Charles to Sedalia, Mo.; and being confirmed by the U.S. Senate as assistant administrator for water at the EPA.

His career low point came at the state natural resources department. He directed his agency attorneys to sue to invalidate a Missouri legislative veto which violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, and resulted in devastating cuts to his budget.

“We actually won the case and were able to save the attorney positions, but it was a painful time.”

Like his career, Mehan’s personal life includes challenges and triumphs.  He is a soon-to-be published author, a cancer survivor, and the father of seven children.

He and his wife, Mary, raised all of their seven children in Missouri, but the entire clan and their spouses and families all eventually settled in Washington, D.C., a “miracle in and of itself,” Mehan said. The matriarch and patriarch frequently see their 19 grandchildren and look forward to the arrival of No. 20 in October.

“I am really blessed,” Mehan said.

The cancer diagnosis came just a few months after the Senate confirmed him as the EPA’s assistant administrator for water.

“I had a meeting at the Pentagon, the Friday before Christmas 2001 and was going to see the Army Corps of Engineers on a wetlands issue,” Mehan recalled. “I was just feeling horrible. Quite frankly, I thought I was having a heart attack.”

Mehan went to an emergency room, where doctors ordered blood tests. “A nurse came in and said, ‘Mr. Mehan, we don’t know how you walked in from the parking lot. You have no blood.’  What she meant is ‘your blood counts are in the cellar.’ That was a sobering moment in my life.”

Mehan was eventually diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a disorder sometimes confused with leukemia.

“So then I marched up to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and was fortunate enough to have a sister who was a perfect bone marrow match,” he said. “I was lucky. Not everybody made it out of that program up there.”

Mehan underwent a bone marrow transplant in February 2002 and spent months recovering. He gradually built up his strength and endurance and returned to work. For the next five years, he had to be tested every year to make sure the disease had not returned. In 2007, he was declared cured and has lived a full, active life ever since.

“The story has a happy ending,” he said.

For now, Mehan’s focus is on his new position at AWWA and a book he co-authored with Oliver A. Houck, a professor at Tulane University Law School. Best of the Books: Reflections on Recent Literature in Natural Resources and the Environment will be published this month. The book features wit and wisdom from columns the two wrote for The Environmental Forum, the policy journal for environmental professionals.

William D. Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, wrote in the forward: “If you find yourself interested in the environment and thirsting for more information about what is meant by being an environmentalist, this is the book for you. If you want to understand the multitude of complex issues raised by different players in the debates – heroes and villains – then read on.”

Mehan brings his understanding of complex issues to AWWA, where he is immersing himself in everything from cyanotoxins to WIFIA.

“I view my role as one of service to the mission….and drawing upon the great expertise of our staff,” he said. “I want to formulate priorities and come to common agreement. Collaborative at the front end, focused on achieving results at the back end.”