Q & A with Alumna Newsha Ajami ‘06

Ajami, who received her doctorate in civil engineering, specializes in sustainable water-resource management.Feb. 7, 2018 - Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy for Stanford University’s Water in the West and NSF-funded ReNUWit initiatives, earned her doctorate in civil engineering. A hydrologist specializing in sustainable water-resource management, her multidisciplinary research focuses on improving collaboration and outcomes among scientists, policymakers and stakeholders. She worked on water and energy-related legislation as a science and technology fellow at the California State Senate’s Natural Resources and Water Committee, and was subsequently appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2013.  Ajami was inducted into the first Samueli School Hall of Fame class in 2015.

You investigate the uncertainty surrounding water-forecasting techniques. Can you explain?

Hydrologic models are a simplified mathematical way of explaining complex natural or physical processes. They don’t fully capture everything that happens in nature, and they are highly dependent on the underlying assumptions and parameters used to develop them. But they’re extremely valuable because they give us a way of understanding the past and foreseeing the future.

One way to improve our models is to understand their inaccuracies and determine how that affects output and forecasts. If you understand the uncertainties, you can incorporate them into the decision-making process and try to manage short-term and long-term risks.

Why are you interested in improving interactions between scientists and policymakers?

It’s common in academia to do a deep dive and focus on advancing our understanding of a specific field, and while research ultimately can have social impact, that’s not always the primary objective of academic research efforts. I was curious to see how some of the results from my work could be used more effectively in a real decision-making process, and if not, how do we create a platform for communicating what academia does to the decision-makers and policymakers in a more effective way? And the other way around: to take their concerns to academia in order to inform our technical work more directly. That became my passion – to see how we can connect these two worlds that do not often interact with each other.

How can we avoid depleting our resources?

Obviously, we all need to be mindful of how much water we use and what purposes we use it for, so the public has an important role.

Also, it is important to understand how water demand is changing in order to make more informed decisions on capital investments to meet future demand. Over the past 20-30 years in some parts of California, the population has doubled but water use has not changed, and in some cases, has even dropped. This is partly due to efficiency and conservation efforts. So despite our conventional approach to water-supply planning, population growth in the recent decades has not necessarily led to demand increase. Therefore, if we plan for the future based on demand increasing relative to the population, we might be over-investing in large-scale, capital-intensive solutions. 

Can you share an example?

During the recent drought in California, the state’s water use dropped significantly, leading to a large decrease in wastewater flows. If a wastewater agency had made a considerable investment in expanding its plant based on assumptions related to population increases and consequently, flow increases, it would be experiencing a considerable revenue shortage. And there is no guarantee that revenue would recover in the future, especially considering the increased interest in water recycling and reuse.

This kind of planning is outdated. Today, the city of San Francisco is promoting onsite reuse: every new high-rise building is required to have systems that will collect water out of sinks and showers and clean it up for reuse for toilets and other uses. Water supply and demand is shifting and changing. We need to be mindful of these changes, understand the consequences, and build a water-governance platform that reflects these changes in the most effective way.

Is desalinization an option?

It depends on the region. Central California (the Monterey/Santa Cruz region) is not connected to any of our large imported water systems, and they are fully dependent on their local water supply. Their community has invested considerably in conservation and efficiency measures over the years. Looking forward, as they think about how they can augment their water supply and diversify their water portfolio, desalinization sounds like a viable option for them and can take the pressure off some of their existing water supply systems.

In that area, desalinization makes a lot of sense, economically, socially and environmentally. Do I think every other region in California is in the same situation? The answer is no. It really depends on location and available options, and every community has to be smart about how it makes these kinds of investments.

You have said that you see drought as an opportunity. How so?

Generally, every crisis is an opportunity to promote change. A crisis can highlight weaknesses in a system and provide an opportunity for collective action.

The recent historical drought in California affected the entire state. When it happened, we were actually able to accomplish a number of things, including passing a sustainable groundwater act. There was lots of pushback initially, but the drought provided this opportunity for us to rethink and reimagine the way we govern our water resources.

How did you decide to become a water engineer?

My father and my maternal grandfather were both engineers, and I was inspired by them. I’ve always been very interested in building things, especially Legos, and math was my passion. I could spend hours and hours playing with different mathematical games and trying to solve them in different ways. So I guess the combination of the two led me to become an engineer.

Water came later. When I was an undergraduate, I interned at a consulting company, where I was involved in developing a decision-support tool to operate a dam in Southern Iran. Trying to understand how the system works and how to manage it effectively, along with the environmental and social impacts of these decisions, really made me passionate about the topic.

You got your undergraduate degree in Iran and your master’s in Arizona. How did you end up at UCI for your doctorate?

Actually, I came to the U.S. to go to graduate school at George Washington University. I wasn’t there long when I met Soroosh Sorooshian at the AGU Spring meeting in D.C. He suggested I should consider applying for the hydrology and water resources program at University of Arizona, where, at the time, he was director of the NSF science research center. It was one of the best decisions I made. When he came to UCI, I moved with him to do my doctorate.

Can you tell us about your family?

My husband, Armin, is head of strategic programs at Wells Fargo’s digital group. He has been my rock, going through the whole Ph.D. process and supporting me in every professional decision. We have an 11-year-old son, Parsa, and an 8-year-old daughter, Leily. Parsa is super passionate about building Legos and is a math guru. Leily is an avid reader and loves to play board games and solve challenging mathematical questions.

It sounds like you might have future engineers in the family.

You never know. We want them to be whatever they want to be. We want them to be happy, successful and positive members of society.

Lastly, if you could give Californians one piece of advice, what would it be?

We have to change the way we see water. Access to clean water is vital to our livelihood and social and economic wellbeing. Do not waste this precious resource.

We often don’t think about water and its role in our daily lives; we see that it comes out of the tap and we see it go down the drain. Water utilities spend so many resources to provide us high-quality water in such an affordable way so we all should be mindful of how we use and consume it, and make sure we don’t waste it.

I also want to say to Californians: drink tap water; don’t buy bottled water unless you have to. In most of California, your tap water is cleaner and more reliable than bottled water.

- Anna Lynn Spitzer