Survivor: Stormwater Staff Reflect on the Last 20 Years


In 1990, a group of castaways (i.e. staff) were sent to the not-so-remote location of Los Angeles to start a tribe named the Stormwater Management Division that was faced with a challenge: protect water quality. OK, so maybe it’s not exactly like the show Survivor, but you get where we’re going with this. Now in its twentieth season the Stormwater tribe is bigger, but their challenge is still the same. We thought you’d like to hear from some of the folks who have been here since the beginning. First, some intros:

Name: Wing Tam
Years with the Tribe: 19
Official Title: Senior Environmental Engineer
What that Means:
As an Assistant Division Manager for the City’s Watershed Protection Division, Wing Tam provides leadership by developing and implementing green infrastructure projects. He is a Registered Professional Civil Engineer in the State of California and has more than 25 years of management experience in water resources, wastewater, stormwater, finance, and information management and geographic information systems technology. Wing has focused on urban runoff and stormwater quality management in the Los Angeles area for the last 19 years and currently leads the effort for the City’s Proposition O Clean Water Bond Program and Green Streets/Infrastructure Initiative.

Name: Joyce Amaro
Years with the Tribe: 18
Official Title: Senior Management Analyst I
What that Means:
Joyce Amaro is the Public Education Manager for the City’s Stormwater Program. She began her career with the Stormwater Management Division in 1992 as a clerk typist. She promoted into her current position in 2000 and is proud to have been with the City’s Stormwater Program for the majority of its 20-year history.

Name: Ammar Eltawil
Years with the Tribe: About 19
Official Title: Civil Engineering Associate IV
What that Means:
Ammar Eltawil is the lead plan check engineer for the Standard Urban Stormwater Mitigation Plan (SUSMP) counter. His duties include reviewing and checking plans for private and public developments to insure compliance with the current NPDES permit; provide technical assistance to private developers and other City Departments/ Bureau to determine adequate cost effective BMPs; and provide training, guidance and support for the SUSMP plan checking team.

Name:
Oscar Amaro
Years with the Tribe:
18
Official Title: Graphics Supervisor I
What that Means:
Oscar Amaro oversees all graphical and visual elements of the program including outreach materials, web presence, displays, presentations and conceptual art. This also includes creating visual materials for the Los Angeles River Revitalization efforts as well as the Plastic Bag Recycling Program.

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What would you be doing if you were not working for the Program?

Oscar Amaro: I am incredibly fortunate to have a career that mirrors both my interest in art and illustration, and my commitment and passion for the environment — especially the ocean. Even if I were not working for the City’s Stormwater Program, I would hope to be in a similar field of work related to water resources.

Ammar Eltawil: If I were not working for the Program, I would still be working in this field serving the environment. Even when I go on vacation to other States whether it is Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, or Montana, I continue to have the program in my mind; I am always on the look out for new ideas on how they are managing their stormwater runoff. And when I see something I explain it to my children.

How has the Program changed over these past 20 years?

Joyce Amaro: As far as the public education program is concerned, we’re a lot more sophisticated and targeted in our outreach than we were 20 years ago. Back in the early 1990s, the focus was on simply educating people that Los Angeles had a storm drain system. Now that public awareness about the issue has increased, we’re focusing on behavior change and targeting our messages to specific audiences.

Wing Tam: The program has evolved from its infancy into its current adolescent stage. It is still relatively new and is showing some signs of maturity. The stormwater field was a relatively new arena 20 years ago; it started out as simple developmental laboratory research in the field to implementation of natural sustainable practices. Valuable lessons were learned and knowledge gained during this time, which has helped us develop our current framework and approach to stormwater issues.

What has been your most memorable moment with the Program?

Oscar Amaro: On a purely selfish and personal perspective … meeting my future wife (Joyce) — whom I still closely work with after all this time! We have a wonderful working relationship and it helps that we are both passionate about the ocean (we were married in Catalina!) and care about the sea life as well as the health of our natural resources. And now that we have a toddler, we want him to have that same love of nature — our environment. I also plan on making him my SCUBA buddy when he grows up!

On a professional level, it was seeing the program’s initial art piece (the “Make the Connection” poster) resonate with so many people. This is the piece that launched our credibility and national presence on the stormwater issue. After that poster went public, we were getting calls from agencies from across the U.S. as well as from Australia and the Far East wanting to borrow or reuse the art. Another thrill has been seeing how passionate kids are about our ocean, the creatures in it — and being eager to want to help. We knew we had to tap into that passion in order to enlighten and change the habits of a new generation.

Joyce Amaro: Since I’ve spent almost my entire adult life working here in the City’s Stormwater Program and met my husband Oscar here in 1992, I really do feel as though I live and breathe stormwater! I don’t have a single ‘most memorable moment’ with the Stormwater Program. Instead I have 18 years of memories (happy, heartwarming and, yes, challenging at times) which all represent my personal passion and my work – a love and protection of the environment and Pacific Ocean.

Ammar Eltawil: Each assignment that I’ve worked on has a very memorable moment. One of the first assignments that I worked on was to update the drainage maps with all the storm drains that outlet into the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek. I filed my observations daily and became very familiar with most of the major large outlets. Some were large enough to drive a truck through. Because of this knowledge, the public outreach group asked me to accompany them on a tour with Huell Howser, the host of the TV show: California’s Gold. We spent a whole day showing him most of the Los Angeles River including some underground sections of major tributary channels. I believe that episode was a success, and I always remember this day every time I watch his show.

How was the issue of stormwater pollution approached when you were young?

Joyce Amaro: When I was young, growing up here in LA in the 1970s, the issue of stormwater pollution wasn’t on anyone’s radar and environmental issues as a whole were sadly lacking in school. I’ve always had a love of the ocean and remember sitting on a rock jetty many times in Long Beach as a child, enjoying the waves and looking out towards Catalina Island. My work with the City’s program is a natural extension of the love I had as a child.

Ammar Eltawil: As a refugee, I lived the first seventeen years of my life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Average annual rainfall there is less than 7 inches! Streets were always flooded every time it rained because they do not have adequate storm drainage systems. Stormwater pollution was never on anybody’s radar, but I was always interested in solving the flooding problem. My work and experience with the Watershed Protection Division is more than what I bargained for; I was fortunate to be part of the Sun Valley Watershed Stakeholder Group working on a similar situation. Not only can we solve the flooding problem; all stormwater can be retained from the watershed for infiltration or capture and use. The Sun Valley Park pilot project will testify to that.

Where do you see the Program in the next 20 years (i.e. 2030)?

Oscar Amaro: Hmm…interesting question. With Los Angeles having an arid climate, rainwater should be a valuable resource rather than simply being something that gets routed off and away. I’d like to see that attitude change not only on a public level, but also from a municipal level. Even though we’ve had a lot of rainfall recently, this is not the norm year round. I’m a huge advocate of open space, but I also know how powerful developer’s “influence” can sway politicians and their decision-making. That said I’d like to see developers taxed to pay for building some type of stormwater retention/recycling facility. If their developments are going to prevent rainwater from being absorbed into aquifers (from increased paving), then they should shoulder the responsibility for making sure runoff is not only free of contaminants, but also put to good re-use.

Wing Tam: With the dawn of a new decade, I am encouraged that people are beginning to realize rainwater is a precious resource that needs to be captured and used to enhance our limited water supply. In 2009, we launched the wildly popular Rainwater Harvesting Program and the Green Streets Initiative. The overwhelming residential and development community support was phenomenal and I hope, by 2030, rainwater harvesting will be the norm — something practiced by every homeowner and developer in all LA communities.

Click here to view all of the articles in Issue 9 of the LA Stormwater newsletter.

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