Bobbi Larson, Executive Director of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, met with Brown and Caldwell Vice President Jim Graydon to talk about building bridges, breaking down silos and creating the Utility Association of the Future.

JAN. 20, 2015

Under your leadership, CASA has reorganized and launched a number of new services and initiatives. What are the highlights?
I was very fortunate to assume the helm of an organization that was already very successful and very well regarded, so I started in a good place. I wasn’t asked to fix something that was broken, I was coming in to guide an association that was good and hopefully make it better.

CASA has significant influence and credibility, representing 113 local agencies serving 90 percent of the sewered population of the state. One of our accomplishments was convening a very successful State Public Policy Forum, bringing CASA members to Sacramento to meet and interact with legislators and other decision-makers.

We also helped to advance the utility of the future concept, establishing a Utility Leadership Committee and Energy Workgroup and recruited several new agency and associate members to CASA. Of course, much of what we have done in my first two years is to establish foundations for the organization to really meet today’s needs and challenges, which means addressing some things that frankly aren’t very sexy. Things like bylaws, committee structure, accounting practices. It’s important to get your infrastructure in place in order to build and grow your advocacy programs.

You have been in the trenches and at the forefront of a number of policy and regulatory debates over the past two decades. What are the most promising regulatory trends you are seeing in the industry? What are the most negative trends you are seeing?
I see a couple of very positive trends. The first is the shift in emphasis and focus for wastewater agencies. They have gone from being simply efficient collectors and treaters of wastewater that can then be released back into nature beneficially, to being Utilities of the Future. The potential of wastewater agencies to provide resources, to generate energy, reduce greenhouse gases, provide beneficial soil amendments and create new water is all very exciting. We’ve always been experts in water quality, we’ve always been experts in how to collect and treat wastewater, and now we have to build this whole new expertise.

The second is this trend away from adversarial relationships with the regulators. Historically, regulators have used the so-called “D.A.D. approach.” They Decide, Announce and Defend, and we’re faced with battling a decision that was a done deal by the time we even got to the table. Now regulators are trying to get stakeholders involved early, trying to get their input into the development of the rules and regulations. I think it’s recognition of something CASA has always believed, that we are partners. We’ve solved most of the easy water quality problems so now we’re asking questions like “How do you deal with salinity in the Central Valley?” or “How do you deal with nutrients in surface waters?” These are the kinds of questions that don’t lend themselves to “Just set a numeric standard and go chase it.” So I think they need us, and that’s good.

As far as a not-so-positive thing, laws like the Clean Water Act and others have not been revised for decades and I don’t think those laws are keeping pace. They do very well what they were designed to do, which is focus on point sources and control the release of pollutants from those sources. But now the main sources of pollutants are nonpoint, such as urban stormwater and agriculture, and the laws just aren’t structured very well to deal with those. In addition, they’re not structured to deal with holistic watershed approaches. I wish I could say that I’m hopeful there will be a significant change in the near future. Given the political climate, I think we’re going to have to use our creativity and our innovation to work within the laws we already have. If I had my wish, we would be allowed to manage to net environmental benefit.

What has been most surprising to you as you moved from professional law practice into an association leadership role?
I really liked being a lawyer. It was fast-paced, and intellectually stimulating, and I was fortunate to be part of a firm with really top-caliber lawyers who were a pleasure to work with. And I did represent CASA, so it wasn’t as though the association was new to me.

In law practice, your job is to represent your client ably and zealously, and someone else is responsible for sorting it all out. But now that’s really my job, to take into account all the broad perspectives of my agency members, my associate members, the outside entities I deal with, the regulators, the legislators, Congress and do my best to chart the right course. In some ways it is much more rewarding to be someone who’s trying to get it right, but it is also so much more challenging.

2014 was quite an eventful year in the clean water industry, both in California and nationally. What stands out as the most important event or development in your mind?
The entire water community has been almost singularly focused on the ongoing and persistent drought. This has been a crisis, certainly, but for wastewater agencies it’s also been an extremely valuable opportunity. We’ve been able to emphasize the water supply benefits and the potential of increased water recycling in California. There are many ways that has been successful.

Proposition 1, for example, was passed in November and that includes $725 million for water recycling and desalination projects. The State Water Board, through CASA’s advocacy along with a number of our partners, set aside $600 million in very-low-interest loans for shovel-ready recycled water projects. And the State Water Board also adopted a streamlined general permit for nonpotable recycled water uses that is designed to facilitate expanded and easier use of recycled water for nonpotable uses.

With the passage of Proposition 1, what is CASA’s role in making sure the funding is directed to the most high-value projects with the most beneficial outcomes?
Our goal is to see that money committed and out the door as quickly as possible. We’re advocating that the State Water Board be responsible for allocating those funds. We think the emphasis should be on projects that create new water supplies and replace potable water, and the board has recently demonstrated a strong support for increased water recycling. It is also putting greater emphasis on customer service in terms of processing applications, eliminating barriers and getting money out the door. We don’t want to see the money become part of a big, convoluted process that takes a lot of time. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out, but we’ll be right in the middle of it.

What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the clean water industry in 2015?
One of the biggest challenges is the threats to our unity and our cohesiveness as a community. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this now because of the role I’m in, but there are just so many demands on all of our time, and there are so many competing distractions for our resources.

One of the more powerful things about CASA is when my staff or I or our board members stand in front of a lawmaker or a regulator, we can say we represent the entire California wastewater community. I think our challenge is to continue to be able to present a unified face and not let ourselves get broken into a lot of little segments or factions. We can do so much more together.

We talk a lot about breaking down the silos in the water industry. Have we made the progress you’d like to see?
I think we’ve made quite a bit of progress toward the shared view that “water is water,” and the drought has helped with that. I think we have a ways to go. We all believe in the One Water theme. I think it’s just going to take some time as we build partnerships, work together more, and look for common issues like recycled water.

I’m hopeful that as we begin to show what the wastewater industry can contribute to climate change solutions, to renewable energy, to water supply, to mine reclamation, and reclamation of fire-ravaged lands, there’s going to be a motivation on the part of the regulators to want to break down silos because they’ll be convinced of the good things we can do. I think that is much more compelling than our traditional argument that it’s too burdensome or too costly for us to continue to regulate in silos. The more projects we take on together, the more we’re going to realize we’re better together.

There has been remarkable progress in advancing policy, regulations and public education on potable reuse of recycled water in the past several years. Do you anticipate similar progress on acceptance of land application of biosolids?
I can’t tell you how gratifying it is for me to hear the environmental community, regulatory agencies and other stakeholders singing the praises of potable water reuse. That’s a remarkable change from where we were not so many years ago. Not so long ago we were dealing with what I like to call “showers to flowers” (instead of “toilet to tap.”) There was a definite lack of public acceptance and I feel we have really come full circle on that.

To some extent, I’d say that biosolids are also gaining ground, with interest in biosolids for fire-ravaged lands and or restoring mine sites. Biosolids are gaining a lot of attention as a potentially valuable resource, as a feedstock for energy production. I don’t know that land application itself will expand significantly, for reasons other than simply public acceptance. What most of our agencies are doing, which I think is very wise, is diversification of their biosolids end uses. They’re not putting all of their biosolids in one basket, so to speak, but maximizing all their options going forward.

As the industry moves toward a One Water philosophy and we define the Utility of the Future, what does the Utility Association of the Future look like?
This is a great time to be in the wastewater business, it really is. Not that long ago, when I was the CASA regulatory director, things felt pretty bleak. It seemed like there was constantly more and more regulation, an “us vs. them” dynamic with the regulators, and a feeling that we weren’t being heard. We were being driven to do things that didn’t make a lot of sense and that cost a lot of money.

I think the Utility of the Future concept is changing that. And similarly, it’s going to change the Utility Association of the Future, which I think CASA is, of course. We’re going to have to continue to provide expertise, advocacy and leadership in new areas that have not been our core mission for the past 50 years. So we’re going to have to learn new ways of communicating. We are going to have to pursue initiatives that advance our mission, not simply play defense and hunker down. We are going to have to take some risks and get in front of some of these trends. We’re going to have to be better, faster, smarter, and use our resources very effectively to do more with less. We are going to have to stay close to our members and make sure we are reflecting their interests. And I think we are well positioned to do that right now.

What’s next for CASA?
We have a lot of exciting things planned for 2015. We’re going to do something a little out of our comfort zone and that is working really closely with some environmental non-governmental organizations on legislation to restrict plastic microbeads in personal care products. It is going to be very good experience in trying to build partnerships with the NGO community in the area of pollution prevention.

We are hoping for much more involvement and engagement of the membership in the things that we do in our advocacy through our Washington, D.C., and now our Sacramento conferences, really engaging them through these calls to action for legislation so that they can help us carry our messages.

As you look back at your career, what are you most proud of?
At a recent conference, I heard someone say, “I practice relentless incrementalism” and that’s how I view my career. I don’t see that many big wins that I can point to. To me, it’s doing a lot of little things that made our world a little or, best case, a lot better.

I am proud of the relationships I’ve been able to develop with decision makers, with people within our community, and with other stakeholders. Developing trust and understanding other perspectives are critical to any kind of success we might have, and that takes time and a willingness to get past your differences. I feel that has paid off and has allowed me to be more successful as I’ve gotten a little grayer, a little longer in the tooth, so to speak.

What I’m most proud of is that I’m executive director of CASA and I’m honored to represent the members. I like working with engineers. I find them generally to be problem solvers, and find our skills to be complementary.

When you’re in law practice, some clients you like better than others, but I feel — day in and day out — proud to represent the wastewater professionals that I do. I fully believe in them as protectors of the environment, protectors of public health, stewards of ratepayer resources, and good employers.


Name: Roberta "Bobbi" Larson

Title: Executive Director, California Association of Sanitation Agencies

Background: Prior to assuming this role, she served as a shareholder with Somach Simmons & Dunn, a Sacramento law firm specializing in environmental law where her practice emphasized water quality law.

Larson earned her Juris Doctor at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, and her bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California at Riverside.

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