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Ten Experts to Watch on Urban Water Policy and Infrastructure

Conservation and innovation at the urban level have helped California weather five years of drought. Here are 10 leading experts helping California’s cities to be drought-proof and more water efficient.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
El nino storms capturing rain2
Cars drive on Woodman Avenue in Panorama City, Calif., Jan. 7, 2016, alongside a culvert where rainwater runoff is directed to a leach field on the side of the street. Due to drought, water agencies are moving to capture and store more water.Michael Owen Baker, AP

Five years of drought have brought both big challenges and big changes to California’s urban water systems. Amid yearlong mandatory water cuts, residents of California’s cities have made massive efforts to conserve water at home and at work. Many water agencies have stepped up programs to treat and reuse water. Policymakers have made headway in regulations for water recycling.

But there’s ample room for growth.

Experts around the world are watching how Californian cities think, research and innovate to create a path of sustainable growth in a future with fewer water resources. Meet some of the crucial voices our editors and contributors look to for expertise on this topic.

Kayakers paddle down the Los Angeles River. (Noaki Schwartz, AP)

Kayakers paddle down the Los Angeles River. (Noaki Schwartz, AP)

Richard G. Luthy

Richard G. Luthy is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the university’s Woods Institute for the Environment. Luthy is also the director of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Re-Inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt), an interdisciplinary, multi-institution research center that promotes new strategies for urban water systems to achieve more sustainable solutions to water challenges.

At Stanford and ReNUWIt, Luthy’s research has encompassed many aspects of urban water, including water quality, water reuse, sediments and stormwater capture. “California is out in front of the nation in seeking reliable and resilient water supplies for the future,” Luthy wrote last week in an op-ed for Water Deeply on water rates. “Our experience shows that water rates need to be restructured to further conservation efforts and expand the water supply portfolio while maintaining revenues,” he added.

David Sedlak

Urban water systems expert David Sedlak is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at U.C. Berkeley. He’s also the co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and deputy director of ReNUWIt. Sedlak’s research has focused on the fate of chemical contaminants and establishing cost-effective, safe and sustainable systems to manage water resources. He is interested in the development of local sources of water and has worked extensively on water reuse and wastewater-derived contaminants.

Sedlak authored the 2014 book “Water 4.0: The Past, Present and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource,” a history of water infrastructure and three key revolutions in 2,500 years of urban water systems. He recently spoke at length with Water Deeply about the challenges and opportunities of California’s water systems. Sedlak tweets at @water4point0.

Megan Plumlee

Megan Plumlee is the director of research and development for the Orange County Water District (OCWD), a national leader on potable water recycling. Plumlee oversees a team of scientists who conduct applied research to improve water quality and increase the efficiency of OCWD’s recycled water treatment and groundwater recharge operations, often in collaboration with academia and technology providers.

“This is an exciting time at the District with a lot of innovative studies underway,” Plumlee said. “Current R&D projects range from pilot testing ultrafiltration membranes, DNA sequencing of the microbial community present in the District’s recycled water and demonstration testing of a new technique for measuring recharge basin percolation rate, to name a few.”

Miguel Luna

Miguel Luna is a principal at DakeLuna Consultants, a community-based firm working on local and regional conservation and watershed issues. He’s also the founder of Urban Semillas, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization established to educate and empower underserved Spanish-speaking communities on social and environmental justice issues. He has created several “Agua Universities,” educational courses exploring the watershed with minority and underserved high-school students. Luna’s on the board of Water Education for Latino Leaders and has also worked with Heal the Bay and the River Project. He tweets at @myLAview.

Paula Kehoe

Paula Kehoe is the director of water resources for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), which serves about 2.6 million people in the Bay Area. Kehoe is responsible for diversifying San Francisco’s local water supply portfolio through the development and implementation of conservation, groundwater and recycled water programs. Under her leadership, SFPUC has become a leader on conservation and water recycling, including onsite water reuse systems. Today, San Francisco’s residential use per capita is a little over 41 gallons (155 liters) per customer – among the lowest in California.

Newsha Ajami

Newsha Ajami, the director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, has focused her research efforts on the role of big data in building sustainable water resource management solutions, water policy, innovation and financing and the water-energy-food nexus. She has particularly concentrated on the improvement of the science-policy-stakeholder interface by incorporating social and economic measures and effective communication.

“Historically our response to our water infrastructure challenges has been reactive rather than proactive,” Najami told Water Deeply in a recent conversation about modernizing the country’s aging water systems. She’s on Twitter @NewshaAjami.

Felicia Marcus

For Felicia Marcus, the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, urban water is what launched a long career in environmental issues. In the late 1980s, Marcus played a crucial role in Heal the Bay’s successful campaign to push the city of Los Angeles to end dumping incompletely treated sewage into Santa Monica Bay.

She went on to head the Los Angeles’ Department of Public Works, where she rolled out ambitious recycling, stormwater and wastewater programs. More recently, at the Water Board, she oversaw the implementation of Gov. Brown’s mandatory 25 percent cut in urban water use. “The urban stuff is where the rubber hits the road,” Marcus told Water Deeply in a recent phone conversation. She tweets @FeliciaMarcus.

Stephanie Pincetl

Stephanie Pincetl is professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA. Pincetl researches how cities impact resources, including water sources and ecosystems, and how those resources are used in cities. Pincetl focuses on quantifying those flows, understanding how institutions, regulations and rules shape the ways the flows are appropriated and learning how cities are built and organized. She has created the first ever interactive energy web atlas that describes building energy use in Los Angeles County and is also working on a large project to understand the water system of Los Angeles County.

Laura Tam

Laura Tam, the sustainable development policy director at urban policy think-tank SPUR, has focused on urban sustainability and climate resilience, particularly when it comes to urban water policy and management, green infrastructure, sea level rise and clean energy. She wrote “Future-Proof Water” about the Bay Area water supply in 2013 and “Future-Proof Water for Silicon Valley” in 2016. Recently, Tam worked on a major report on energy in the Bay Area as well as a collaboration between the city of San Francisco, the state of California and the Netherlands on sea level rise adaptation. She’s on Twitter at @lauraetam.

Richard Atwater

Richard Atwater is the former executive director of the Southern California Water Committee, a nonprofit working to develop consensus recommendations and public education on regional water issues. Atwater has had a long career in water management, including more than a decade as the general manager of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency. At Inland Empire, Atwater became known for innovative water recycling, renewable energy and biosolids composting projects. In 1994, Atwater received the Department of the Interior’s Conservation Service Award, the highest citizen award for natural resources management.

Read more in our “Experts to Watch” series:

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