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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Herb Sachs

How a U-M graduate education shaped the career for an environmentalist ahead of his time.

Time in Alaska can change a person. That happened for Herb Sachs when, after his undergraduate experience, he spent time there while serving the army. Always prone to spending time outdoors, Herb never considered anything in that realm as a potential vocation. It turns out, that was exactly what he was meant to do – and he did so over the course of a groundbreaking career that shaped environmental policy for the State of Maryland.

At the time he was searching for a career, Herb considered forestry because he knew something about the field. Once he discovered U-M’s brand new program in Natural Resources Administration, he knew that was the perfect way to fully utilize his undergraduate degree in political science.

Much of the U-M experience was defined by his faculty advisor, Dr. Lyle Craine, who considered the future of the field to be in managing water resources. Herb took his advice and dove in to the program, taking advantage of water resources classes, field work and public administration offerings in the School of Natural Resources and in the Rackham Graduate School. He was one of the first graduates from Rackham’s master’s program in Natural Resources Administration, a curriculum developed in recognition of the need for providing the necessary administrative support in managing natural resources programs.

As a requirement of his Master’s degree, Herb completed an internship working for the U.S. Study Commission – Texas which was tasked with examining all of the intrastate rivers in the state and recommending appropriate actions. On that experience, Herb says “that was an education in itself, part natural resources and part politics. It was truly an eye opening experience, involving people from numerous federal and local agencies as well as university faculty all contributing.” Herb spent a little over a year there and came back with more than enough information to write his Master’s project thesis.

Herb completed his degree in 1962 and returned to his home state of Maryland where there was interest in improving and expanding its resource management activity, but at the time no one on staff with a natural resources background. Herb quickly became the in-house natural resources expert. He began his employment with the State Planning Department at a starting salary of $4,800 a year, but it didn’t matter because he quickly got so busy that he hardly had time to spend it. One of his first assignments was to review an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to build multiple reservoirs in the Potomac River watershed. Based on Herb’s recommendation, the State of Maryland supported construction of one of the proposed projects, Bloomington later renamed Jennings Randolph Reservoir. To meet federal requirements for repayment of water supply storage costs in a federal reservoir, Herb wrote legislation creating a Maryland Potomac Water Authority which established a mechanism to cover the costs. He later participated in writing a low flow allocation agreement which determined how the Metropolitan DC water utilities would share available water during a low flow situation. Finally, Herb worked on a regulation requiring a continuous minimum flow of fresh water into the downstream estuary. With all these conditions met, the reservoir began operations in 1982, the only reservoir built on the mainstream Potomac. Herb’s continuous involvement in all aspects of its development certainly contributed to its successful completion which to this day is an important component of the Metropolitan DC water supply.

The second assignment in his early career was to write legislation implementing a report to the governor pertaining to administration of water resources in Maryland. Herb’s legislation led to creation of a Department of Water Resources, a Department of Chesapeake Bay Affairs, and a Maryland Geologic Survey. While the legislation was enacted, there were concerns expressed over the extent of changes and how they would be implemented. An independent review was requested. Herb convinced everyone that Michigan’s Dr. Lyle Craine was the right person for the job. Lyle was hired and his report Maryland’s Role in Water Resources was not only supportive of the changes that had been made, but also included recommendations for future action, most of which would be picked up in subsequent legislation. While this reorganization was ongoing, Herb was also supervising a state wide water supply and demand requirement study being performed by faculty from the Johns Hopkins University.

Lyle was so enthused with what was happening in Maryland he asked Herb to make a trip to Ann Arbor to talk with his graduate students. While on campus, Herb did some recruiting and successfully recruited three talented graduate students. Together, the Ann Arbor group became known as the “Michigan Mafia.” During the ensuing years, the Michigan team developed and/or revised numerous environmental programs covering subjects such as water supply, pollution control, wetlands management, flood control, abandoned mine reclamation, etc. Other staff eventually joined in, adding programs for erosion and sediment control, petroleum transporting and storage, hazardous waste management, dam safety, power plant siting, and one which Lyle followed closely, a state utility for developing and managing water and waste water facilities. Many of these programs were the first of their kind in the country. All of these action programs were developed with full public support, and legislators were now coming to staff requesting assistance in addressing environmental issues. In 1971, the role of the Michigan Mafia was given a large write-up in the Washington Post. During this era, Herb was considered the go-to-guy for all things environmental in the State, and Maryland was recognized nationally for its innovative achievements in natural resources management.

The interplay of resource operations and public administration was very apparent in Herb’s career. Herb was Chief of Planning in the Department of Water Resources when the Governor

consolidated all of the State’s resource agencies into a Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Herb was assigned the task of consolidating the separate administrative units existing in six agencies into a single DNR administrative unit. He spent over a decade moving  back and forth between different roles in operations and administration, a fact that clearly points to the intent and the value of the Natural Resources Administration program in Rackham.

One of Herb’s passions became protecting the 64,000 square miles that comprise the Chesapeake Bay, an area he felt received inadequate recognition or protection. Shortly after the legislation creating the Department of Chesapeake Affairs was enacted, Herb worked on the committee drafting the Susquehanna River Basin Compact, governing a river that contributes 80% of the fresh water entering the Maryland portion of the Bay. Sometime later Herb’s staff drafted a study plan for the Chesapeake Bay which was used in formulating a comprehensive study of the entire Bay. This plan triggered the Bay restoration activity which is still ongoing.

After 30 years with the State Departments of Planning and Natural Resources, Herb was appointed Executive Director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. Following six years with the Commission, Herb returned to the State, this time with the Department of the Environment (MDE) which in the interim years had absorbed many of the water resource functions previously administered by the DNR. While with MDE, Herb was the principal staffer on a five year study of water resources management in the State, which included recommendations to meet future resource needs. Herb worked on several initiatives to assist farmers in meeting erosion control and storm water management. Herb also represented the State on both the Susquehanna and Potomac River Basin Commissions. 

Herb comments on his U-M academic training, “My work experience most certainly illustrates the value of my U-M graduate school program. From the very beginning of my career, I was faced with situations involving both technical and managerial issues which the U-M program prepared me to address. In the Jennings Randolph Reservoir Project, paying for water supply storage was a new experience for local governments and could have killed the project had a reasonable, commonsense means of covering the cost not been part of the solution. The interplay between technical and managerial issues was most relevant. Many more example could be cited. While the situations I encountered related to environmental issues, it is my understanding that similar U-M graduate school programs are available in numerous other fields. A most valuable contribution to developing and supporting successful management across the board.”

Having retired after 50+ years of public service (earlier attempts at retirement didn’t stick), Herb serves on a number of boards and commissions that maintain his interest in public administration and resource management. Herb’s legacy has truly impacted the State of Maryland through his significant contributions to the management of its water resources. In recognition of Herb’s many years of outstanding service to Maryland, the state named the street running past the Department of Natural Resource Complex in Annapolis as the Herbert M. Sachs Drive.