Moulton-Post Bringing ESA’s Groundbreaking Science to Water Management & Planning & Design

Leslie Moulton-Post

In an exclusive interview with VX News, Leslie Moulton-Post sheds light on the origins and primary focus of Environmental Science Associates (ESA)'s Applied Environmental Science consulting services. Leslie, serving as a prominent figure within ESA's leadership, elaborates on the firm's core mission of applied environmental sciences, spanning compliance assistance for developers, utilities, cities, and counties, as well as innovative nature-based engineering solutions for shoreline resilience and climate adaptation.

VX News: Leslie, Let’s begin by your sharing the origins and primary focus of ESA’s Applied Environmental Science consulting services.

Leslie Moulton-Post: Thank you for the invitation, David, I appreciate being able to speak with you, and I'm proud to say that the ESA (Environmental Science Associates) is over 50 years old. It started in California, right around a very seminal time in the late 60s and early 70s when major environmental legislation was coming to the fore. The firm was founded in 1969, while the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, CEQA, and NEPA were all coming into being.

Our founders were physical scientists, physicists, air quality specialists, and chemists who felt that this was something that they could help apply their environmental science expertise to. We're 700 people strong, and we’re also a 100% employee-owned firm through an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP).

At our core, we’re an applied environmental sciences firm, serving clients in several markets across the U.S. Compliance is a big part of our business, helping developers, utilities, cities, and counties move through their environmental permitting processes. In addition, we also work in nature-based environmental engineering for shoreline resilience, coastal wetlands, river restoration, and climate change adaptation for habitats.

Could you share with our readers the array of public and private clients that have benefited from ESA’s work over the decades?

ESA works within six key market areas – Airports/Aviation, Community Development, Energy, Natural Resource Management, Surface Transportation & Ports, and Water. In each of these markets we serve an array of public and private clients. The firm is rooted in a commitment to shaping a better world for the world at-large and in our local communities; we’ve had a long history working with the cities, counties, public agencies and private developers across the multi-state regions we serve. ESA is working for most of the major utilities across the state, both large and small, such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Metropolitan Water District, the Soquel Creek Water District, the Department of Water Resources, Turlock Irrigation District, and LA’s Department of Public Works and many more; this is a substantial client sector for ESA.

Our aviation clients include major hubs like LAX and SFO. Across the country, we have specialty noise and air quality practices for airports, as well as resilience and sustainability planning.

One of our fastest growing markets is Natural Resource Management. Biology has always been one of our deepest environmental science capabilities, but we see market growth for large landscape-scale conservation and mitigation. Much of this is driven by mitigation needs major development and infrastructure projects, but also increasingly by established and funded conservation purposes alone. This is an important area where private equity firms are financing turnkey mitigation banks, pay-for-success natured-based environmental solutions and conservation. These address the scale of conservation and mitigation that we need for protecting species, habitats, biodiversity, and other natural and cultural resources while supporting needed development, particularly the infrastructure required for the green energy transition.

And what expertise/talent does ESA bring to its clients/projects?

I'm an environmental generalist. Having grown up in Southern California with a lot of beach/ocean time, I started as a wannabe marine biologist, and quickly moved into consulting because I love being in the intersection of applied environmental science and practical action – moving projects, resource management, all of it forward as thoughtfully as possible. I love to get to the practical and I would say that's a hallmark for ESA. We're on top of our game, bringing high-caliber technical excellence to all of our work and we are committed to practical applications and getting things done for our clients.

My particular area of focus and expertise within the environmental consulting arena became all things water resources, and I became the leader of ESA California’s water practice before stepping in as president of the firm.

Let’s focus, given your expertise, on water resource management in California. How have you and the firm advised California clients on the weather whip-sawing impacts this decade of severe drought followed by ‘rivers of rain’?

As the State and water managers across the state have understood for many years and are acting on now with greater urgency – the keys to a resilient, sustainable water future lie in a diverse and intertied portfolio of sources and systems that supports more efficient use and more equitable access to our limited supplies; increased conservation; and nature-based operations that respect and work with the natural hydrologic cycles – which includes the aggressive move to more effective groundwater recharge and storage recovery now underway. Working on water supply in California requires expertise and attention to what's needed for the health of our aquatic resource systems, and also for the community. ESA has supported clients across the State on a broad range of water supply, resource management, and system projects, from basic pipeline and treatment plant system upgrades and interties to protect water quality and improve system resilience within and between communities and reservoir repair and expansion – such as Los Vaqueros, Perris Lake, and Sites; to new or modified water rights – for clients including Orange County Water District, Stockton, Irvine Ranch Water District, and El Dorado Water Agency) and desalination projects (Cal-Am Monterey and West Basin). Environmental flows, instream flows – these are topics of critical importance for surface water supply management and ESA is applying its aquatic sciences, geomorphology and environmental hydrology expertise here. For desal, California is still figuring out its role in the overall supply portfolio – it’s been a rocky start for these projects but I see us getting traction on how to appropriately locate, design and integrate desal into a more cohesive integrated water management program.

If I eavesdropped on a private conversation between you and California’s Delta watermaster, what would that discussion focus upon?

That discussion would be about practically bringing the best available science to the challenges.

We’ve be working closely with the Department of Water Resources on some of their fisheries management efforts and, you know, it's such a pivotal time with the explosion of big data and data management capabilities. The ability to get your hands on more data and connect and synthesize it new ways has allowed you to identify and study other questions that you should be asking. We now have so much more sophisticated ways of tracking, managing, and monitoring fish populations. Data-driven environmental analysis has led us to a bigger set of questions, on the food chain issues for example. The efforts around creating better nurseries for Delta smelt and other fish species is a good example. ESA is moving rapidly to integrate data technology into our work to unlock a better understanding of the resource issues and the solutions to the obstacles faced in the apparent conflict between healthy aquatic systems and adequate water supply. It can’t be a zero-sum game; we must ensure both – ESA is focused on that outcome.

Our conversation would also address how to apply adaptive management. That’s not easy for California because we want our utilities operations, our compliance, our mitigation to be "set it and forget it.” That era is over.

It's going to be real-time monitoring and frequent turning the dials on who gets water, and when does it come out of the river? When can it come out of the environment and when does it need to stay there?

There's going to be big rainstorms that need to be moved into groundwater recharge, and there’s going to be other periods where you just simply can't take more flow off certain systems.

In an era today where science seems often to be trumped by partisan politics, how do you encourage pulling science more into public discourse?

I appreciate the new generation of leadership we are seeing in key utility and resource management positions, Jennifer Pierre, who leads the State Water Contractors, for example, and others who are not running away from science, but are pursuing use of the best available with practical application. They demand that we move past certain roadblocks and paralysis. I see many people who are willing to pull science into the conversation.

I would say ESA’s contribution to prioritizing science occurs at a granular level. Right now, we're mostly working with local entities trying both to ensure their systems will be more resilient through interconnection and encourage the diversification of their portfolios. For example, we're working on several groundwater recharge projects for people to try to address their SGMA groundwater shortage issues.

I want also to give our team some credit. We've been working on water recycling for decades, and we're big boosters of moving that forward. First, it was non-potable. We now have several indirect-potable projects in progress with the new push to move towards the direct-potable. Diversifying the portfolio and intertying the system strikes me as the right way to move this forward.

Re: pure water, ESA has done consulting with Santa Cruz County and with MET;  could you elaborate on the present use of pure water?

Soquel Creek Water District has been a client for many years. Interestingly, here was the evolution; I started with them on a surface water rights project over a decade ago, and that didn't go anywhere. That project morphed into a non-potable project that morphed into a pure water project. We're supporting the Santa Clara Valley Water District in the same way.

We've worked with the LA system as just one of the many environmental consultants supporting the City and County as they advance their ambitious recycled water programs. Sometimes it's as simple as an environmental impact report but sometimes we support a  much larger scale effort like comprehensive master planning, the pursuit of grants, and trying to help agencies secure some of the IRA’s grant funding to expand, improve or interconnect their systems.

Pivoting to seaports and the investments being made there in California, could you share details re: your consulting engagements re: offshore wind?

I think everybody -- all of California -- is not just trying to prepare but is, in fact, moving forward on getting ready for offshore wind. We were selected by one of the first private developers in the state, and they're piloting development off of the mid-coast in the Morro Bay Area. I understand you did a feature on the CADEMO Project.

We're on their team to help consult on environmental permitting due to our expertise in coastal permitting requirements, and I think there's going to be a learning process for the state and local agencies to understand the offshore impacts, but there will also be substantial onshore activity to support offshore wind development. One of ESA's strengths is working with the communities to appreciate all the onshore infrastructure reinforcement that must happen. The ports are obvious, but roads, transmission lines, workforce development… all of this has to come into play to get California ready to not only build but connect to the system of offshore wind.

ESA consulting includes assisting clients who must navigate the regulatory complexities of project solutions you are typically asked to analyze. Given the many complaints about government, delay, and bureaucracy; what’s your standard process advise?

I’ll tell you that ESA has been, and is happy to be, part of expediting the environmental process. We get it -- we're not here just to do environmental reports, we're here to do what’s best for the environment, get to the other side, and move the project forward. Our team takes schedule performance very seriously. We’re constantly looking for strategies, keeping the end in mind to advise the client on how to effectively move the project to successful completion.

We try to get integrated as far upstream as possible in the process so that we can have a strategic impact and save our clients’ time by making good choices. That’s a commitment for the ESA team and how we deliver value to our clients.

We've been in the business long enough to provide a level of continuity that the regulatory agencies don't always have. I think that’s a value proposition for our clients and our communities because we can provide history and context, relay past permitting history, alternatives considered, decisions made and the steps they've already taken.

In your leadership role at the ESA, there’s obviously a continuing responsibility to forecast and prepare for future opportunities and challenges. Re: the latter, what environmental planning advice to clients are you offering if there is a change of administration at the federal level in November?

We certainly track what's changing on a regulatory basis, and for funding streams -- politics do impact both. However, there’s such a strong drive for the energy transformation that while federal funding has been incredibly important and is in the pipeline to certainly fund infrastructure work for a few years, I’m encouraged by the business community commitment and investment.

I think that the train has left the station on the need for interregional transmission and system interconnection, and on renewables, and there's strong momentum. It could certainly be hampered, you know, with reduced federal funding, but I think that there is enough momentum that ESA and other firms will continue to see strong work in this area. In addition, ESA has a substantial presence in coastal states up and down the West Coast and in the Southeast that have fairly strong state and local environmental regulations that will continue to drive a need for our compliance services. Further, our work beyond compliance is growing notably – for data management, visual and decision-support services; for community and shoreline resilience planning and hazard management, for wildfire risk reduction and recovery, and more,

In Florida for example, they are experiencing climate-change related effects such as “sunny day” flooding of shoreline communities due, not to storms, but to high tides on top of sea-level rise, as well as more extensive damage from more severe weather events. While they don’t focus on the topic of climate change and adaptation at the state policy level, the state, regional and local entities are absolutely addressing coastal flooding, shoreline resilience, and water quality issues. They're having a difficult time, like many communities across the country, with harmful algal blooms due to warming and increased nutrients. With these types of environmental issues affecting our communities and natural resources, there remains a strong need for our work going forward.

Given limitations of time and space, we need to conclude our interview. But before doing so, how does ESA advise clients on the merits of including, indeed scaling green hydrogen in the fuel mix of California?

This is such a burgeoning area for energy production, and ESA has already been a part of the environmental support for the Heartland Hydrogen Project in Fresno County- the first of its kind on the west coast.

What I love about this green hydrogen project is that it allowed us to bring our energy and water experiences together successfully-- kudos to the ESA team involved. The project will generate 300 megawatts of solar power, about 160,000 gallons of recycled water, and up to 30 metric tons of hydrogen fuel each day to power zero-emission vehicles, The use of recycled water for Heartland was a great advancement of use case for recycled water. It was smart of them in a water-stressed area, like the Central Valley, to make that a component. I think this is an example of how that kind of energy development could move forward in California.

I see more of that happening. And I’m looking forward to seeing our ESA experts continue to stay in front of the trends in our markets - for the next 50 years - to best serve our clients and provide the leading environmental consulting services that we are known for.

"...while federal funding has been incredibly important and is in the pipeline to certainly fund infrastructure work for a few years, I’m encouraged by the business community commitment and investment."