Urban Hydrology and Development: An Interview with Susie Santilena

by Peter Sigrist

Susie Santilena speaking at a Southern California MPA (Marine Protected Area) hearing.

Today we're fortunate to present an interview with Susie Santilena, a water quality scientist at Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, California. Heal the Bay has been leading highly effective campaigns to remediate coastlines and watersheds since 1985, when founder Dorothy Green assembled a group of concerned citizens to stop pollution from a local sewage treatment plant. Before joining Heal the Bay, Susie studied civil engineering at Cal Poly Pomona and environmental engineering at Stanford University. While at Stanford, she focused on water and energy sustainability, helping to develop an Integrated Disinfection Design Framework (IDDF) modeling tool. She also worked for two years in landfill planning and air-quality analysis at a public engineering firm. This interview focuses on Susie's work to improve urban waterways, touching upon inspiring projects and offering suggestions for those who would like to get involved.

Trash deposited on the beach at the Ballona Creek storm drain outlet.

Can you tell us about the projects you're working on at Heal the Bay?

We're currently gathering support for a Toxicity Policy released by the State Water Resources Control Board and reviewing pollution limits released by the EPA and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. I attend public hearings to speak on behalf of Heal the Bay’s constituents on issues that affect inland and coastal waters. We advocate for a range of measures, from stronger implementation schedules for pollutant limits — known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) — to the establishment of ocean reserves to help fish stocks recover. I also serve as public representative on the Contaminated Sediment Task Force, with representatives from regulatory agencies and dredging projects.

Sewage spill at Will Rogers State Beach.

What interests me most is the work Heal the Bay does to bring water quality improvements to South L.A. This is part of a strategy for Low Impact Development (LID), which promotes the capture, filtration, and reuse of stormwater runoff. Pollution from urban runoff is the biggest threat to water quality in Santa Monica Bay and many other coastal areas. Conventional development directs stormwater towards the ocean through hardened channels that were once wild tributaries, picking up contaminants along the way. LID water quality enhancements are designed to capture stormwater before it hits the streets, improving groundwater supplies, irrigating plants, and providing sites for recreation, environmental education, and participatory urban development. LID projects include bioswales, green streets, green roofs, and tree wells. As an engineering student, I was taught to design enormous treatment plants for improving water quality. LID focuses on smaller-scale and often aesthetically pleasing solutions.

Site (above) and plan (below) of a reading park with LID features (images provided by Heal the Bay).

Heal the Bay is working on the design, implementation, and optimization of LID projects in urban areas. We're calling for the City of Los Angeles to pass an ordinance that would require LID elements in all new development. Our Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Environment division is working on exciting projects with community partners. One project brings water quality enhancements to the Vermont Corridor in South L.A., near our partners at Saint Michael's Church. We're also working on a reading park with LID features, in collaboration with a local school called Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists. We held a groundbreaking ceremony and press event for this project on March 30, which was featured on KCET: Pocket Park Breaks Ground in South L.A.

Children from the Wisdom Academy installing vegetation at the reading park. Photo from Los Angeles Wave (PDF).

What do you find most inspiring in relation to your work?

Working in the environmental field is something I've wanted to do since third grade, when our class would read about environmental issues in Weekly Reader; so the kid in me is proud. It often seems that short-term economic impacts take precedent over everything, including our long-term welfare, which depends heavily on the ability to use resources wisely. I'm inspired by policy that helps make local environments more clean and healthy. I also find the human connection inspiring — protecting our water quality means we protect our own health and well-being, which is the premise behind “Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Environment.”

Heal the Bay's Inland Cleanup at Algin Sutton Park.

A number of books have inspired me, including "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things," and "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future." I find many TED speakers inspiring; Majora Carter, Natalie Jeremijenko, and Janine Benyus are some of my favorites. I like to peruse the TED website and see what comes up. Eco-documentaries like "Fuel" and "An Inconvenient Truth" are great motivators. My family, friends, community, and love of nature, music, and art are probably the biggest sources of inspiration for just about everything I do.

Do you have any recommendations for those who would like to work or volunteer in this field?

I think the best place to start is your own environment. Educate yourself on ways to capture stormwater and runoff that would otherwise leave your property. G3 Green Gardens Group is a great resource for homeowners who want to get started on sustainable landscaping. See if community colleges in your area are offering classes in the areas that interest you. I took the Green Living Workshops offered through a group called Sustainable Works, and a class in sustainable landscaping through the Solar Living Institute. Find local initiatives that are already doing what you strive to do. I contacted the Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment to find out how to get rain barrels installed at my house, and they did the installations for free. There are a number of organizations in the L.A. area if anyone is interested in doing volunteer work and making a difference. Heal the Bay, of course, is a great one. You can do clean-ups, advocate with us at hearings, or join our Speakers Bureau to help educate others on how to heal the bay! TreePeople and Guerrilla Gardening also come to mind. Another important way to make a difference is to let your government representatives know that you care about protecting water quality and would like to bring LID requirements to your area.

Credits: All images linked to source unless otherwise noted in the caption.


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