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Meet the Minds: Laura Tam on Creating Resilient Cities

Laura Tam, sustainable development policy director at the urban policy think tank SPUR, tells Water Deeply about how our cities can become more resilient in the face of climate change and what that means for our water.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Waves pound a wall near buildings in Pacifica, Calif., during a rainstorm. A report issued by the National Research Council on June 22, 2012, said that Southern and central California can expect sea levels to rise in a range of about 3ft (0.9m) over the next century, while Northern California, Oregon and Washington can expect the range to be less – around 2ft.Paul Sakuma, AP

2017 is shaping up to be an important year at SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. As the U.S. prepares for a new administration, the urban policy think tank vowed to continue its focus on finding solutions for the challenges the Bay Area faces – especially measures to combat and mitigate the effects of climate change.

As SPUR’s sustainable development policy director, Laura Tam coordinates the organization’s work in five crucial policy areas in that field: green buildings, water supply, wastewater, energy and climate change. “We’re at a critical juncture with climate change and we only have a limited window to prevent ecological collapse,” Tam told Water Deeply. “We’re going to have to take collective action and we’re going to have to take it urgently,” she said.

Just a few days before the start of 2017, Water Deeply caught up with Tam as part of Meet the Minds – our series canvassing California water experts.

Water Deeply: What are you working on that you want the world to know?

Laura Tam: At SPUR, we have been working for many years to identify local policy solutions that can make the Bay Area more resilient, while setting examples for other cities and regions. All of this work is connected to water and climate.

In 2016 we proposed 10 big ideas for advancing water supply sustainability in Silicon Valley. We brought San Francisco city agencies and designers together with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and the Dutch government to identify sea level rise design concepts for Mission Creek and Mission Bay, which are among the lowest-lying areas on the city’s waterfront. We also published “Fossil-Free Bay Area,” a major policy report identifying how local governments in the Bay Area can complement state action and lead the way to a clean-energy and clean-air future.

I’m excited about next steps for these projects. We always engage in intense conversations and workshops with stakeholders while drafting our recommendations and projects. But the next phases are implementation and advocacy, which require deeper engagement with the public. Dialogue and discussion are essential to winning on the environment – I guess it’s always been that way. Today, we’re at a critical juncture with climate change and we only have a limited window to prevent ecological collapse. We’re going to have to take collective action – and urgently. So now, for example, when I present our Mission Creek sea level rise adaptation project, I not only present the design concepts but ask the audience what options they would prefer.

With respect to climate mitigation and clean energy, I am more certain than ever that it’s going to be up to state and local governments to take action and do all of the energy transition work we need to stop climate change. But all adaptation is local. The Bay Area is uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise, having such a long shoreline and so much development sited on fill, just a smidge above the high-tide line. I think we can pretty much forget about having federal help to make the shoreline more resilient, so we need to to design, build, protect and restore it ourselves. SPUR will be working with scientific and agency partners in 2017 to figure out what kinds of adaptation strategies would work best – in terms of habitat, flood protection, land use and more – for which parts of our diverse shoreline. I’m looking forward to working with cities and Bay Area regional agencies to take some of these steps.

Water Deeply: What surprised you in the past year about work in the water field?

Tam: It surprised me that we managed to reduce water use by more than 25 percent in many places in the Bay Area with little apparent economic impact. It suggests to me that a lot of water use is pretty discretionary, and could either be foregone in the future, or replaced with nonpotable sources.

It also surprised me to learn recently that it may take the state several more years to finalize uniform potable reuse regulations, despite the successful example in San Jose, the endorsement to move forward by a Water Board-appointed expert panel and a growing number of businesses who are eager to start using onsite nonpotable water reuse systems but are having to waiting for local governments to develop the relevant building codes and permitting processes. What’s the holdup?

Finally, it has surprised me to hear stories about people, spurred by the drought perhaps, using water as a scapegoat for exclusionary zoning and planning policies. These are people who show up at hearings to oppose new housing or mixed use development by suggesting there isn’t the water to support it. That’s basically not true anywhere in the Bay Area – except for East Palo Alto, and a solution is being worked on for that community. As long as we are able to painlessly save 25 percent of water use when asked, we can find water for new housing – especially for the highly water-efficient housing we want to put in transit-rich places (see: Plan Bay Area).

Water Deeply: Who/what do you find most inspiring in your field?

Tam: I’m particularly inspired by people who take principled stances for sustainability and defend them despite facing opposition, people who bring in their adversaries to work out solutions and agencies that make tough decisions or investments to demonstrate leadership.

A few examples include Paula Kehoe at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for developing San Francisco’s now-famous nonpotable water program and elevating these ideas into a national conversation; Felicia Marcus for taking a principled stand on freshwater flows in the Delta to protect ecosystems and, before that, implementing mandatory statewide conservation; and the City of San Jose for working with Santa Clara County to develop Northern California’s first “advanced purification” aka direct potable reuse facility.

I appreciate research conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute to show how “alternative” water supplies such as stormwater, wastewater and conservation can meet many of California’s water needs in the future – that kind of research changes the conversation. And I always appreciate the Public Policy Institute of California’s clear explanations of the state’s many water issues. If I want to better understand something about water policy and management that’s new to me, I start there.

Water Deeply: What’s the one most important thing California should be doing right now to create a sustainable water future?

Tam: We need to make new development highly water-efficient or water neutral. We need to retrofit our existing built environment for conservation and efficiency (true for both energy and water). We need to make water more affordable for everyone, especially as our growing need for investment to keep our infrastructure in a state of good repair translates into higher rates.

We need to reform Proposition 218 so we can have stormwater rates, lifeline programs and tiered/conservation rates. We need to develop a “one water” vision – and match appropriate sources to uses (no more toilet flushing or golf course irrigation with Hetch Hetchy water). We need to capture urban stormwater for reuse and invest in green infrastructure solutions for water quality and better streets. We need to invest in direct potable reuse as a better alternative to desalination.

Water Deeply: Looking out 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished on water issues?

Tam: All of the above.

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