Nancy Sutley is no stranger to sustainability projects of an immense scope. The chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 2009 to 2014, Sutley was a chief architect of President Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan. For the past two years she has served as the chief sustainability and economic development officer of the nation’s largest municipal utility—the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).
“LADWP is undergoing a once-in-a-century transformation,” says Sutley of the agency, which is unusual in that it combines both a water and an energy utility in one. “We have a very different vision for the future than what we have traditionally done.”
That vision includes cutting back heavily on the amount of water imported from afar, and making much greater use of local water resources, including capturing storm runoff and treating groundwater. It’s a massive undertaking, given that Southern California is a naturally arid environment, a constraint that climate change has greatly intensified. From her office overlooking the Los Angeles skyline—which is not so polluted these days, she is happy to report—Sutley recently spoke with gb&d about her work at LADWP and what lessons drought-stricken California, and Los Angeles in particular, holds for the rest of us.
Part 1 A GENERATION OF CHANGE
gb&d: What events in your upbringing have come to influence your worldview today?
Nancy Sutley: When people ask me what inspired me, I tell them about my weekend rides on my little Stingray bike down to Little Neck Bay, this beautiful spot on the Long Island Sound in New York City where I grew up. My mother would tell us we couldn’t go near the water because it would make us sick. These were the days when New York City was basically pumping raw sewage into the East River and Long Island Sound. I don’t know where she got this from but she said if we ever went in the water we would have to get washed off with kerosene.
gb&d: What did you think about that at the time?
Sutley: I thought it odd that we were making the environment off-limits, that we couldn’t actually enjoy it, because we were harming it. I thought we could do better—and we have. I remember participating in the first Earth Day there when I was little. And all these years later Little Neck Bay is a big spot for kayaking and fishing and all those things that we couldn’t do when I was a kid.
gb&d: Thanks to folks like you, a generation later the world is a cleaner place—the movement is working!
Sutley: Yes, even here in Los Angeles. My friends who grew up here talk about how on bad air days they couldn’t go out to play and were kept inside school; activities were canceled. When I first started coming to LA in the early 90s my eyes would sting, and now sitting here in my office most days I can see the mountains. Though I have to say it’s still a little hazy on some days.
gb&d: You must feel that your work is never done. That said, California has come farther than most places in terms of the environmental movement.
Sutley: For me that just demonstrates how political will and the practical application of knowledge, technology, science, and law have really made a huge difference. I was working for the EPA in Washington in the early 90s, and decided to take a position at their regional office in San Francisco because it seemed like the place to be if I wanted to make a difference with environmental policy. So I got to experience up close and personal the kind of leadership that California has always shown regarding the environment.
gb&d: Why do you think the state has become such a leader in the movement?
Sutley: Because we are so big, the problems are bigger. But that just means that the opportunities are also bigger. I think the public in California has always been so willing and supportive of aggressively going after environmental goals. It has made a huge difference with things like air quality. And it is not just our lungs that have benefited from that leadership, but I think the economy has benefited from a better quality of life and a healthier place to live. It is part of what keeps California a very attractive place to live and do business.
gb&d: The notion of the environment versus the economy doesn’t gel with that picture at all.
Sutley: Absolutely not. Many other states across the country would love to be California in terms of the economic growth and job opportunities we have here.
Part 2 LESSONS FROM A DRY LAND
gb&d: The LADWP has an unusual history. How did the water utility and energy utility come to be under one roof?
Sutley: As with many institutions of government there are both historical reasons and contemporary reasons that certain aspects of infrastructure are the way they are. The Department of Water and Power started out as the water department back at the turn of the 20th century. The power business came out of that because the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brings water to LA from the Owens Valley over 200 miles away, has numerous small hydro plants along the length of it. They still produce energy currently.
gb&d: What is the relevance of that arrangement today?
Sutley: Today there is a lot of focus on the water-energy nexus, whether you’re looking at it from the energy perspective or the water perspective—i.e. the energy intensity of water, or the water intensity of energy. We are rebuilding our coastal power plants so they don’t rely on ocean water for cooling, given the impacts on marine resources, for example. By 2029 we will fully be out of using ocean water for cooling.
gb&d: What are your top priorities currently?
Sutley: On the energy side, it’s more renewable energy, more energy efficiency, and less polluting sources. We are divesting our coal-fired power plants—in fact, this summer we divested ownership of a 300 MW coal plant in Arizona. We plan to divest our last coal plant by 2025, which is in Utah.
gb&d: What forms of renewable energy are you pursuing?
Sutley: We’re making investments to encourage the development of solar in the city. We have lots of solar on rooftops, and we continue to offer incentives to our customers to put solar on their roofs. We have a feed-in tariff that is basically a standard contract for people who want to build solar facilities in the city. And soon we will launch a community solar program which will allow people who don’t have a roof, or can’t afford to do it on their own roof, an opportunity to participate in ownership of rooftop solar. We’re also making investments in electric vehicle charging. This is a huge transformation.
gb&d: What about on the water side of the equation?
Sutley: We have traditionally relied on water coming from hundreds of miles away from Owens Valley, Northern California, and the Colorado River, but we’re shifting to more reliance on local sources of water and using more recycled water. We’re capturing more of our storm flows when it does rain here—it does occasionally rain here, although we are starting to forget that!
gb&d: Los Angeles is known as a leader in water conservation. Tell us about your progress with that.
Sutley: We have made huge investments in water conservation, which has made a tremendous difference. Today we use about the same amount of water as we did in 1990, even though we have added 1 million people in the city of Los Angeles. So our per capita water use is down about 15 percent from that time.
gb&d: What do you see as the biggest challenges your agency faces?
Sutley: There are a lot of stresses on our water supply, some which are related to climate change. Over the next 20 years or so we’re going to make very large investments to try to get 50 percent of our water coming from local sources, which is a big change for us. It makes our water supply more reliable and more resilient, whether to climate change, earthquakes or other things that could potentially disrupt it.
gb&d: What projects are you working on now in order to reach that goal?
Sutley: One of our big projects involves a very large groundwater basin that lies under the San Fernando Valley [in the Los Angeles suburbs]. The problem is that it is a Superfund site. It has a history of industrial pollution going back to the Second World War and before. But we are trying to get it cleaned up and restored to its full capacity so that we can use it, not just to take groundwater out, but also as a place to put captured storm water and recycled water, essentially to use it as an underground reservoir. That will give us a lot of flexibility with our water supply in the future.
Part 3 NATIONAL LEADERSHIP
gb&d: After five years at the White House were there any nuggets that you took away in terms of the national conversation about sustainability?
Sutley: When I worked at the EPA in Washington in the early 90s, the environment, at a federal level, was the EPA’s issue. It was not something that was front and center for most federal agencies. It was left to the agency that had ‘environment’ in its name. But when I came back to take the job at the Council on Environmental Quality one of the things that really struck me was that pretty much every federal agency felt that they had a part to play and a stake in meeting the environmental goals of the administration. Every agency could see themselves in those goals.
gb&d: What do you attribute that to?
Sutley: I think it really reflects the evolution of the way people think about sustainability. You see it reflected here in Los Angeles where the sustainability initiatives being undertaken are really not just stovepiped to one department, but that there is a role for every department to play—transportation, buildings, energy use, it’s really everybody’s issue now. I think that’s the way people think about the environment these days.
gb&d: The unfolding of Frank Gehry’s LA River Plan has been a major inspiration for other cities around the country trying to revitalize neglected waterways. Can you give us an update?
Sutley: The plan was ratified by the LA City Council just in June. So we’re working through the process with the Army Corps of Engineers. We have this incredible asset that runs through the middle of the city for 32 miles, which right now it’s just kind of a forgotten, sad flood control channel in many places.
gb&d: It is certainly a symbolic project for Angelenos.
Sutley: The river is kind of why the city was founded. The story that’s told is that Los Angeles was founded by 44 settlers who walked nine miles from Mission San Gabriel to find this flowing river under some trees—it’s not too far from where I’m looking out my window here. So the city’s history is very tightly connected to the river. Reconnecting the city to its history and really making it into an asset is really exciting. There are projects that have already been built along the river that demonstrate the potential of the city’s restoration plan.
gb&d: Both LA and California have extreme environmental challenges, but are also considered leaders in building resilience. What can the rest of us learn from those challenges, and leadership, in this part of the country?
Sutley: It’s important to walk the talk. The LADWP has a lot of real estate here and we are trying to show residents that you can have attractive outdoor spaces without using a lot of water, so we’ve taken out the turf at most of our facilities to reduce water use. The city created the Los Angeles Clean Tech Incubator, which is housed in the same facility as the LADWP efficiency labs and our technical evaluation staff. We are really trying to foster that interaction between the entrepreneurs in the clean tech incubator and the utility which we think is a unique model for around the country.
gb&d: Overall it sounds like you have a very simple equation for achieving sustainability on a large scale: political will plus a grand, innovative vision plus incremental action, equals positive results.
Sutley: If you focus on making efforts toward sustainability, you can really see the results. You literally just have to look out the window to see how much our environment has improved and how vibrant a city this is. You can really do these things.
Download the PDF of Nancy Sutley’s In Conversation and On the Spot pieces here.