By Jennifer Lee
Date: May 11, 2020
Jennifer Lee is the Environmental Regulatory Compliance Manager for the City of Burlingame. Working in the public sector for over six years, she oversees city-wide environmental compliance, public outreach, and coordinates a wide array of stormwater pollution prevention, water conservation, and water loss programs and initiatives. Jennifer graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Management from U.C. Davis.
My job is to ensure that the city is in compliance with environmental laws by managing our inspection programs, conducting public outreach, and reviewing new development projects. These programs reduce pollutants from entering our storm drain system in order to keep the San Francisco Bay healthier.
While I was in college, I studied Environmental Science and knew I wanted to find a job that supported the environment. This stemmed from an experience I had in fifth grade where I attended a weeklong school trip in the Santa Cruz Mountains and learned about the forest and beach ecosystems in an outdoor classroom. I knew that there were pathways for my major in the federal government (such as working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Forest Service), however I had never considered working in local government. I remember looking and not finding many jobs in municipalities that had the words “environmental” or “sustainability” in the job title so I assumed that those jobs did not exist. I eventually came across a city agency whose entire department was focused on the protection of the environment. It was inspiring — I knew I wanted to work there. I was able to get an internship there where I learned how local government operates, from adopting local ordinances to implementing and enforcing these policies that affect our communities. That internship and all the opportunities I have received along the way has led me to my current role.
At the local level, you really execute programs that directly impact and empower communities. For instance, I started an Adopt a Drain Program which encourages residents, businesses, and students to “adopt” a storm drain near their home, work, or school. By pledging to adopt a drain, we provide volunteers cleaning supplies to enable them to keep their local storm drain clean of leaves and litter — which helps reduce the amount of pollution that flows into the San Francisco Bay, as storm drains connect directly to our creeks and also helps reduce flooding from clogged drains. Out of the 1,400+ drains in the city, 126 drains have been adopted by 96 adopters.
Previously, I had worked for the City and County of San Francisco, which serves a city population of about 885,000. Now, I work at the City of Burlingame – a smaller municipality that serves a city population of about 31,000 people. Some of the benefits of working in a smaller agency is that I get to work on a wider variety of projects, which has increased my understanding of how cities function. For example, I’ve compiled a citywide water loss audit, conducted plan reviews for private new and redevelopment projects, and worked collaboratively with other cities to ensure that we are complying with the same stormwater permit.
One of my favorite memories while working in local government is getting the opportunity to visit the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and see where our water comes from.
On March 16, seven Bay Area jurisdictions announced a Shelter in Place Order, which has now been extended through May 31st. Per Section 3100 of the California Government Code, all government employees are declared Disaster Service Workers who can be called upon in an emergency. (I have not been activated to work as a Disaster Service Worker yet.) Currently, I have been working from home like many others during this time. However, there are portions of my job that require me to be in the office or in the field conducting site inspections. My main projects are to ensure that our inspection programs are proceeding in compliance with the Shelter in Place Order and to transition our landscape classes online through webinars.
Water agencies are beginning to pivot into evaluating the future of water resources and the best ways to use and reuse water. For example, many cities are treating wastewater to a high enough degree to use it for non-potable uses such as landscape irrigation. Some utilities are taking that a step further and turning it to potable water. So in ten years, my hope is to be advancing this change – and implementing these exciting programs – in a way that continues to support the community and the environment.
I would not be where I am today if not for the internships I had, so my advice is to try and get your foot in the door — even if that means starting with an unpaid internship (if you can afford it). Given that jobs in the public sector can be highly competitive, my top recommendation is not to limit yourself to one city or one department. Expand your search and look for city jobs in nearby municipalities (as far as you’re willing to commute) and consider reaching out to city staff and see if there are any upcoming internship opportunities.