August 25, 2021

A conversation with Mami Hara, CEO of the US Water Alliance and Sara Aminzadeh, Vice President of Partnerships, US Water Alliance

Sara: Without using your name or title, can you introduce yourself?
Mami: An intensely community and environmentally focused Asian woman committed to ensuring water and land that sustains everyone.
Sara: You have a fascinating career trajectory, from construction to the design and planning part of the sector into
utility leadership. What brought you to this work? Or what has carried you through everything you’ve done? 
Mami: My parents were artists/designers and part of a Japanese cultural movement similar to the Bauhaus movement, which sought to integrate and harmonize habitation, community, and the surrounding environment.
They were children during WWII and emerged from it deeply opposed to war, fascism, and prejudice against others—and committed to creating a way of life that illuminated the beauty that comes with learning from, cooperating with, and designing as part of nature. They crafted almost everything in our physical environment, created our garments, grew our food organically, elevated stormwater management into an art form, and gave us the liberty to be feral and experimental. Planning, designing, and building fully integrated places and systems were a way of life for our family.
We were shaped by the experiences and ethos of our upbringing and the many diverse guests and colleagues, whom we shared meals and projects with. In our family, everyone collaborated and developed a range of skills in order to help the whole family accomplish whatever was at hand. As a child, I experimented with and made miniature environments and small things. Later, I helped to construct buildings and landscapes. Then I designed landscapes instead of building others’ designs, and eventually that grew into planning and designing for communities and cities, and which included planning and designing sustainable infrastructure systems. After that, as a utility manager, the scale of work grew to foster sustainable, regional infrastructure systems and services. And now, with the Alliance, I will have the privilege of collaborating at a national scale to help build a sustainable water future for all.
That trajectory feels like an organic sequence, building from one scale to the next, but still interrelated and interdependent. I also feel the continuity and importance of community and cooperation, of land and water, and the pull of my parents’ values and vision throughout everything I’ve done.
Sara: After five years leading Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), you’re departing SPU later this fall to assume the position of CEO of the US Water Alliance. What accomplishments from your time at SPU are you most proud of? How are they relevant to the work of the Alliance and our members? 
Mami: Over the last five years, SPU committed to the practice of being a community-centered utility. At its essence, being community centered means putting people at the heart of our work and working with them to understand and address their priorities. That approach might at first seem soft and ambiguous but in practice, it is very powerful and has led to remarkable achievements in almost every area of our work.
As a public utility delivering essential services, the ethos of being community centered existed before we articulated it, but consciously using it in decision-making has been empowering for many people. Using community interest as a touchstone helps to clarify priorities and empowers peoples’ judgement and innovation. It is useful in both urgent challenges and systemic work.
Examples of immediate responses included keeping each other and our community safe during the pandemic and the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.
For a systemic change, SPU embraced the community’s values and collaborated more deeply with customers and each other. SPU can count the following among many other achievements:
  • Improved the affordability of services by lowering SPU’s rate path and significantly expanding assistance programs and enrollment.
  • Raised financial ratings and lowered the cost of debt through alternative financing.
  • Reduced the average customer response wait times from 27 minutes to a few seconds and expanded the ways customers can access services.
  • Bore down on risk, resiliency, and supply planning and investments.
  • Collaborated with the community to chart the course for a One Water plan called Shape Our Water.
  • Developed nationally influential programs supporting sanitation and health of unhoused people.
  • Forged strong community partnerships and investments in vulnerable communities.
  • Multiplied staff participation in service equity and environmental justice issues.
  • Expanded the goals for and implementation of green stormwater infrastructure.
  • Increased the diversity of our apprenticeship class.
  • Advanced a variety of community wealth building programs.
  • Polished the planning, design, design review, confidence estimating methodologies, delivery, and engagement for the overall capital program and key projects such as the Ship Canal Water Quality Project, the largest and most expensive capital project ever undertaken by the City of Seattle.
  • Launched the first all renewables powered solid waste fleet in the nation.
  • Instituted the first city small plastics ban, otherwise called a ‘straw ban,’ which started worldwide adoption of similar policies.
SPU’s gains belong to each person in the utility and the people who partnered with the utility. Everyone is part of the community and part of the team.
Like SPU, the people of the US Water Alliance already embody a community-centered ethos. It is an incredible, ever more impactful network of remarkable water leaders from all sectors, pulling together to ensure water for all.
Sara: What does One Water mean to you? 
Mami: Hope for the future. One Water is both a holistic way of thinking about water management and a practical, systems-level approach to meet the complex and pressing water management challenges we currently face.
Traditional and siloed water management approaches do not address the challenges of the 21st century. The severe impacts of climate change, the cumulative impacts of decades of environmental contamination in our waterways, aging infrastructure, significant backlogs of important infrastructure maintenance, and insufficient funding threaten the sustainability, affordability, and equity of essential services.
To meet these challenges, we need to protect and cultivate healthy, adaptable watersheds and ecosystems, use more integrated and equitable water management strategies, and target our water planning and investments to achieve multiple benefits. We need to prevent problems upstream rather than piecemeal interventions. And we need input from diverse stakeholders because complex environmental threats can only be addressed by harnessing the wisdom and efforts of our communities to drive stewardship.
Sara: What is next for the US Water Alliance? Where do you see the organization going under your leadership? What are your priorities?  
Mami: There are so many opportunities to build upon the great accomplishments of the Alliance and its members and to move the conversation— and work —forward. I’m excited to work with the Alliance staff and network on water’s most pressing challenges, including water equity and climate resilience. In our climate work, we will need to help advance GHG mitigation and climate adaptation in water systems and watersheds.
I anticipate further amplifying the course developed collaboratively with members over the last few years and growing initiatives such as the Water Equity Network, the Value of Water Campaign, and our climate resiliency work. Across all our work, we are fortunate that the Alliance has a deep bench of talented staff, a visionary board, and a powerful network of members and supporters. Building from those strengths, I see further cooperation with other sectors and interweaving of our network and agenda with allied networks.
Sara: What approaches influence your leadership style?  
Mami: I have found shared leadership to be a powerful approach for facilitating great results and fostering leadership, awareness, cohesion, cooperation, and organizational culture. You can create so many positive, systemic outcomes by employing this approach.
At the individual level, I try to engage in critical thinking consistently and find that I have a steady stream of internalized assumptions, biases, influences, and mistakes that both get in the way and that keep me motivated to grow!
At a personal level, my experiences and perspectives—as an Asian woman who loves our planet and the people who inhabit it—drive my desire for environmental justice, service equity, and equitable climate adaptation. Also, at my core, I am really interested in what other people think and do. Listening to and learning from others is a lifelong opportunity.