| AWWA Member Spotlight: Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City Public Utilities

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AWWA Member Spotlight: Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City Public Utilities

Position: Director, Salt Lake City Public Utilities (SLCPU) 

Laura Briefer speaking at podiumEducation: B.A., Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Barbara; M.P.A., University of Utah 

Describe the impacts of the western U.S. megadrought on SLCPU. SLCPU provides drinking water to more than 360,000 people, institutions and businesses in Salt Lake City and surrounding communities. Our water supplies are primarily from the nearby Wasatch Mountains, fueled by a normally abundant snowpack (although climate change is reducing snowpack in this region). 

Reduced water availability caused by low snowpack, low soil moisture, high temperatures and reduced overall precipitation is an obvious impact of the megadrought we’re experiencing. Another impact felt here and across the western U.S. is increased catastrophic wildfire risk in source water areas. For SLCPU, a destructive fire would impact the Wasatch Mountain watersheds and affect the quality and reliability of our primary water supplies. We are actively working with U.S. Forest Service, state and local partners to mitigate increased fire risk. (Pictured at left and below, Briefer at treatment plant groundbreaking ceremony.)

The Great Salt Lake was recently featured in national news as a system imperiled by the combination of drought, growth and climate change. There are cascading public health, environmental and economic impacts of a shrinking Great Salt Lake. These impacts are local, regional and international, given the importance of Great Salt Lake to bird migrations. 

Laura Briefer at treatment plant groundbreakingWhat public response has SLCPU seen? The mega-drought has amplified public awareness about the plight of Great Salt Lake. If there is a silver lining to this drought, it is that the public seems highly engaged in the tremendous value surrounding water. This includes water supplies as well as recognition of the intrinsic value of water in our environment, and the interdependencies of environmental health and human health. This increased public engagement surrounding water is critical to being able to address current and future water challenges. Transformational public policy surrounding water and climate change is needed and requires a partnership with the communities we serve. This partnership can only happen with an engaged public. 

What about an economic impact from the drought? For SLCPU, a very significant strategy for drought response includes water conservation. Our community is doing a wonderful job of conserving water and has decreased its demand for water by between 15% and 20% each year over the last three years. This has stretched our water supplies, increasing our resiliency over several years of drought. However, as an enterprise city department, this means we have also lost much-needed revenue in our water utility to fund important aging infrastructure repair and replacement. It also means less funding for operational needs at the same time we have increased regulatory requirements, such as the changes to the Lead and Copper Rule. A new water rate study is scheduled this year and is a good opportunity to reconsider economic strategies to meet critical water infrastructure and operational financial needs, especially during intense drought cycles.

How has SLCPU prepared for the current situation? Our water utility is one of the oldest retail systems in the western United States and we have a long history of planning. Our preparations include:

  • Iterative water supply and demand planning that incorporates climate, drought and infrastructure risks. Our most recent water supply and demand plan was completed in 2019 and projects out to 2060. It includes projections of population growth, land use changes and climate change, and will be updated this year to incorporate data and lessons learned over the last three years of drought.
  • Water demand and conservation management is critical to resilience during a drought. Our preparations have included constant public engagement and public education. Our most recent water conservation implementation plan adopted in 2020 highlights innovative approaches to conservation programming. 
  • Conservation pricing that is built into our water rates. This includes four tiers of pricing that increase as more water is used, providing a price incentive to conserve. 
  • Protection of our water supplies to avoid risk of any water quality issues that would exacerbate the impacts of drought. SLCPU’s water supplies are primarily from surface water that emanates from the Wasatch Mountains and Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. SLCPU works with the Forest Service, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and private interests to protect the quality of our water supplies at the source. Our partnership with the Forest Service is more than a century old, dating to the 1906 establishment of the National Forest. We implement a watershed management plan and engage the public through our Keep it Pure campaign. 
  • Replacement and rehabilitation of water infrastructure to avoid risk of infrastructure failures that would exacerbate drought impacts. Salt Lake City has been gradually increasing water rates to finance aging water infrastructure. We have also received a $36.7 million grant through the FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program to rehabilitate one of our water treatment plants. 

Laura Briefer hikingWhat is SLCPU’s long-term drought strategy? SLCPU is continuing to build resiliency within our organization and our community. Like many of our counterparts across the country, we’ve developed and implemented strategies to make all parts of our system more resilient. This includes a focus on aging infrastructure, source water protection, continuity of operations, workforce, and financial policies. An especially important lesson learned over the last two years of reacting to drought, a pandemic, earthquake, windstorm, and inflation is that we need to constantly assess and improve organizational resiliency. Drought has presented challenges for SLCPU, but it is also a venue to improve our community’s overall resiliency by integrating lesson learned and observations made into preparedness strategies. (Pictured right, Briefer hiking in Wasatch Mountains with Whiskey).

What lessons learned would you share with utilities also facing water supply shortages? Water supply shortages affect utilities and the communities they serve in different ways, depending on their size, the characteristics of their water supplies, economic characteristics, and the condition of infrastructure. Three lessons that apply broadly include:

  1. Water supply and demand planning is critical, especially using multi-year drought scenarios and other factors that can lead to loss of water resources (infrastructure failure, human or natural caused disasters). These plans should be updated often as conditions affecting water supply and demand are always changing.
  2. Public engagement cannot be understated. It was very valuable to have already developed trust and rapport with our constituents and policy makers through the last several years when we entered Stage 2 of our Water Shortage Contingency Plan last year and asked our community to conserve more water. It also helped during our budget processes, when we requested rate increases to address aging infrastructure and increased operational needs, including the expansion of our water conservation program. It was also essential that our engagement included other city departments (e.g., planning, sustainability, permitting) and the state agencies that regulate water.
  3. Apply an equity lens to the situation. Not everyone in the community will have the same resources to respond and adapt to water supply shortages, which can disproportionately impact some groups. Rate structures are a good example of this: maintaining water affordability while providing a price incentive to conserve requires some balancing of these two public policy goals.

Laura Briefer skiing with familyHow and why did you get involved in the water sector? I followed my passions for environmental protection and public service. Before being involved in the water sector, my career included environmental consulting, environmental advocacy, and city management. My role in city management was in one of the smallest communities in Utah – the Town of Alta, which is situated at the top of the Wasatch Mountains within Salt Lake City’s municipal watershed. I worked closely with SLCPU and Salt Lake City leadership in my role with the Town of Alta, collaborating to implement watershed protection strategies. My career evolved to a position with SLCPU. I have worked in various roles at SLCPU for 14 years, with my most current role as its director beginning six years ago. Working in the water sector aligns with my personal environmental and public service ethics very deeply. It is very challenging work that keeps me motivated through constant learning and problem solving. The people I work with every day make it even more meaningful.
What benefits have you received from your AWWA involvement? SLCPU employees receive numerous benefits from our AWWA involvement both at the section level and nationally. This includes opportunities to attend conferences and network, access information on all aspects of our work, and stay current on federal policies. I also appreciate the partnership that AWWA has with other industry groups, such as the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and the Water Research Foundation. I serve on the board of both of these organizations, and the collaboration is impressive.

Please describe your family and/or hobbies and interests. My husband, Andy, and I just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in August. We have two amazing children -- our daughter, Amelia, and son, Xander, both in high school. Our family (pictured above) loves the outdoors and great adventures. Last year we floated rafts on the south fork of the Flathead River through the Bob Marshal Wilderness in Montana for a week, where we saw all kinds of wildlife, caught fish, and heard wolves howling at night. Most days I am on a trail in our local foothills and mountains with my dog, Whiskey.