Speaker Spotlight with Mami Hara | General Manager/CEO, Seattle Public Utilities

How has 2020 shaped you and your organization’s strategy/work regarding sustainability and a more equitable regional economy?

Seattle Public Utilities manages waste and water for all businesses and residents in Seattle. The utility has an annual budget of $1.4 billion and about 1,400 employees, and our work spans from managing urban flooding and drainage to collecting and sorting City’s compost, recycling, and solid waste; from forest management in the pristine Cedar and Tolt River Watersheds to ensuring high quality drinking water for 1.5 million people; from supporting hygiene stations and RV pump-outs for our unhoused communities to maintaining extensive green and gray infrastructure throughout the City. Our core businesses are on the frontlines of climate: they contribute to climate change and are impacted by a changing climate.

As we recover from the health, economic, and social crises of 2020, we must prioritize building a circular, regenerative and holistic Seattle economy. Climate change, environmental pollution, social unrest, economic disparity are complex problems that require inclusive and interconnected approaches. Seattle Public Utilities can contribute to this recovery in the following ways:

  • Influence a regional ecosystems economy via blue-green jobs training and workforce development
  • Contribute to livability and quality of life via green stormwater infrastructure, access to clean drinking water, and investment prioritization in environmental justice communities
  • Lead with racial equity as we evolve our business into the future

2020 taught us that climate change will exacerbate existing inequities. Our communities of color will bear a disproportionate burden of climate impacts. To move forward we must recover in ways that address inequities and disparities, build community wealth, prevent displacement, foster partnerships, lead with community priorities, and act now to adapt to a changing climate.

Tell us your plan at Seattle Public Utilities to drive new action and growth around green facility operations, carbon neutrality, water conservation and zero waste.

Seattle Public Utilities, with our community, is a national leader in protecting and sustaining community health and the environment. We have long recognized that how we manage water and waste has the power to drive transformative change for our employees, community, environment, and economy for generations to come. Today, this is more important than ever, as new and continuing challenges test our resiliency and resolve.

SPU’s 2021-2026 Strategic Business Plan focuses our priorities, guides essential service delivery, and maximizes the benefit of every dollar. The plan reflects guiding principles that are at the center of our work ethic: understanding and responding to customers and community, ensuring affordability and accountability, addressing risk and resilience, enhancing equity and empowerment, and delivering service and safety.

The vision, priorities and goals of SPU’s Strategic Business Plan will guide us in our work to collaboratively prevent waste; prioritize sustainable resource management; facilitate greener and more efficient building; invest in and maintain our aging utility infrastructure; and partner to create new, green jobs that will benefit traditionally underserved communities and restore our environment. A few examples of programs that are moving us towards these goals include:

  • Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI). For nearly two decades, SPU has been investing in GSI or nature-based approaches like rain gardens, floodable open space, creek floodplain improvements, and stormwater capture and reuse to mimic how native forests manage rainfall. These investments complement and improve our underground pipe and tank structures to help prevent flooding and water pollution, improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods with nearby nature and health benefits, and help make our city more resilient to the long-term impacts of climate change, like increased occurrence and severity of flooding.

Until recently, SPU’s predominant approach has been to identify and build GSI projects according to capital infrastructure needs and engage community only when that infrastructure is being delivered. On the path to becoming more community-centered, we are now flipping our approach to lead with community-defined priorities—access to affordable housing, public health and wellness, workforce development and green jobs, safe and walkable neighborhoods, internships and career pathways for youth, clean air and water, access to healthy food—and determining how we can help meet those needs with our system investments.

  • Urban Forestry – Trees for Seattle Program. The City of Seattle recognizes how valuable urban trees are to Seattle residents and established the Trees for Seattle program in 2008 to serve as the umbrella for all urban forestry work conducted by the City. Seven city departments work together to keep our valuable trees healthy and growing. While urban canopy cover is critical to human wellbeing, we know that canopy cover is not equitably distributed, and that people of color are more likely to live in parts of Seattle with low canopy cover. Trees for Seattle works to grow equitable canopy cover across Seattle and to protect existing healthy canopy cover.
  • Waste Prevention. SPU is an internationally recognized leader in recycling and composting with a long history of working with customers to divert these materials from landfills. As this work continues, SPU is also taking a leadership role in other waste prevention efforts including residential and commercial food waste reduction, reuse and repair, clothing waste prevention, sustainable purchasing, waste prevention education campaigns; and funding for community-initiated and led waste prevention programs. These waste prevention efforts not only reduce carbon emissions related to the manufacturing, transportation and disposal of the materials but also result in the reduction of water and air pollution, marine debris and litter.
  • Fossil Free Facilities and Fleets. SPU is developing a strategy as part of advancing Seattle’s Green New Deal to transition our buildings from fossil fuel use to carbon neutral electricity. SPU is also continuing to electrify our fleet and equipment including the contracted solid waste collection fleet.

You are helping to advance an equitable and sustainable region through collaboration, strategic investment and community partnerships. Can you give us a/some specific examples of work you have done to move action forward on equity?

Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) Job Training: One example of SPU’s work to support communities across Seattle is the utility’s workforce development partnership with South Seattle College in 2020. Initial efforts have been focused on curriculum development and planned delivery of “The RainWise Bootcamp” (an 11-week contractor incubator program), followed by GSI-focused training. This work is a foundational step toward leveraging SPU’s RainWise, GSI public works, and O&M contracts to advance equity, provide pathways to living-wage jobs, and support anti-displacement efforts for underserved communities and communities of color while building capacity to support increased GSI installation.

In addition, SPU has partnered with Seattle Conservation Corps (SCC) since 1986 to provide a one-year work training program for homeless adults, paying minimum wage plus premium pay for 40 hours a week. SCC provides work experience, education, training, and support services that lead to stability and self-sufficiency. SCC has supported the City of Seattle’s GSI program for over 16 years by conducting vegetation management of GSI, concrete work, hydrant and irrigation system management, large capital improvement program retrofit projects, problem solving, and working with communities in diverse neighborhoods that are highly impacted by homelessness.

Duwamish Valley Resilience District: Driven by Seattle Public Utilities’ business and drainage system investments in South Park and Georgetown, and our role as City water managers, SPU is working with City departments, communities and philanthropic foundations to develop a holistic approach to climate change adaptation and shared decision-making for local wealth building in the Duwamish Valley. This effort acknowledges that access to affordable housing and living wage jobs today are as critical as bricks and mortar infrastructure in fostering climate resiliency tomorrow.

The Duwamish Valley Resilience District is a place-based effort focused on pairing public enhancements with community capacity building, neighborhood stabilization policies, and community wealth building. It will include programs and initiatives to proactively mitigate and adapt to flood risk, and to support people and businesses to thrive in place. It will aim to ensure that the benefits of environmental improvements in the area accrue to the current residential and business communities.

At this moment, the City, and other local public agencies, are on the precipice of cleaning up the Duwamish River Superfund Site, expanding Duwamish Waterway Park, vastly improving stormwater drainage, adding green stormwater infrastructure, improving roads, investing in sea level rise adaptation and investing in community spaces. These improvements will change the community and put displacement pressure on current residents if no action is taken. These are planned, and in many cases, funded, projects. The community (and the City) have a choice: Do we establish policies and a platform that can provide a clear pathway to jobs, property ownership and management and additional funding sources related to these projects, or do we engage with each other on a one-off basis for each of these projects, ultimately generating no lasting capacity for collaboration in the community or the City and potentially scattered benefits? In the Duwamish Valley Action Plan, the City committed to long-term strategies for climate adaptation, anti-displacement, and workforce development in South Park and Georgetown by 2023. We are beginning to deliver on that promise now, so that community members can directly benefit from these public investments.

If you’d like to hear more from Mami – register to join us at the virtual conference on April 6th! See the full schedule and grab your tickets here.

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