Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
San Francisco has led the way in the use of onsite non-potable water systems that can stretch drinking water supplies due in no small part to Paula Kehoe, director of water resources for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). Responsible for diversifying San Francisco’s local water supply portfolio through the development and implementation of conservation, groundwater, and recycled water programs, Kehoe spearheaded a landmark legislation making San Francisco the first in the country to require new developments (more than 250,000 square feet) to use onsite water reuse systems for toilet flushing and irrigation needs.
So, who is Paula Kehoe anyway?
Hailing from the Ocean State (Rhode Island), Kehoe recalls summertime when her parents would load her and her five brothers and sisters, and occasionally her grandmother, into a small camper and travel across the country to visit all the national parks. “The parks instilled in me a love of nature; and later through my education, I came to recognize the importance of public service in maintaining and educating the public in the value of our natural resources,” she says. “I carried these values with me as I entered college, cultivating and focusing my studies in environmental management and carrying it forward into my professional career.”
Securing internships in college was very important in cultivating her professional skills. Her first internship was working for a non-profit recycling center recruiting block leaders. “On the weekends,” she recalls, “I would get to drive an old school bus with 50-gallon drums collecting recyclable materials.” To remind herself of those ‘good old days,’ she keeps the horn from the old GMC bus in her office.
Kehoe graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder with a B.A. in Geography. Fresh out of college and arriving in California, she had an internship opportunity at Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council. Later, she landed an internship with the City and County of San Francisco. “It was this early experience with the City,” she says, “which led to more than 25 years of developing and implementing a number of environmental programs.”
Kehoe went on to receive her M.S. from the University of San Francisco in Environmental Management before working as public education director for the SFPUC’s Water Pollution Prevention Program, where she received six state and national awards. Later she became the assistant to the general manager of the SFPUC and supporting the utility’s $4.8 billion capital improvement program designed to rebuild and repair the third largest water delivery system in California.
Today, she serves as the director of Water Resources with the SFPUC. “I work with a fantastic team dedicated to conserving water, developing new water supplies and implementing innovative approaches to how we manage water at the utility. During my tenure, I have worked with numerous dedicated public servants and forged many partnerships with various community stakeholders both locally and across the country and overseas.”
Kehoe gives much credit to her parents for instilling in her the strength and work ethic she exudes. “Backing me up all the way with support was my mother and father,” she says. “I am in awe of their hard work, love, and all they did for our family. Raising six kids, and yet still having time to give back to their community set a high standard to follow. My mother raised us children and in the midst of all that rearing she went back to work and became a public health professional. In my young eyes, her example always inspired me to be strong and pursue my dreams with unwavering enthusiasm.”
Kehoe made it a point to let me know that all of the great work she gets to do is because she has a boss that supports the work her and her colleagues do and understands the challenges they face when creating change.
And make no mistake, she is certainly creating change for generations to come.
One of her proudest accomplishments includes using market research to develop pollution-prevention educational materials to reduce pollutant discharges to the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean. Her work lead to the development of educational materials and outreach campaigns that won recognition and awards in six state competitions, as well as national awards for excellence.
Another proud accomplishment was to bring recycled water back to San Francisco. “In the early 1970s, Kehoe says, “San Francisco had to cease using recycled water for irrigation due to new regulations. Since 2010, however, working with an amazing and dedicated team at the SFPUC, we have been able to serve recycled water to city golf courses and are currently building a recycled water plant to irrigate two more golf courses and more than 1,000 acres of Golden Gate Park.”
Kehoe has also worked on integrating decentralized non-potable water systems with the city’s centralized infrastructure for a more resilient water system through San Francisco’s Non-potable Water Program. “This work serves as a model to other communities,” she says, “and we have shared our strategies with folks around the globe.”
Kehoe has received the Public Managerial Excellence Award from the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) for all the change she has affected in her tenure. “It’s kind of like winning an Oscar in the public sector,” she says.
Most people wouldn’t define conservation and water resources as glamourous. So, I found it refreshing that she sees recognition of her work as comparable to winning an Oscar. I’d argue that it’s perhaps even more prestigious than that.
Just like most accomplished woman I’ve had the privilege of knowing, Kehoe points to the help and encouragement she’s received along the way.
“I am also grateful for the work I get to do at the City,” she says. “And, I am grateful that I found a mentor, Maureen, who has always inspired me to push on despite push back. Finding a mentor is key to succeeding in your chosen field or endeavor. And, not least of which, I also have a supportive husband who encourages me to be and do my best.”
And again, just like most accomplished woman I’ve had the privilege of knowing, Kehoe finds a way to pay it forward.
“I try to give back by mentoring and supporting others with their career development,” she says.
Not only are the topics of conservation and water resources not likely to be considered glamourous, but they’re also the types of topics that draw a lot of criticism and push back.
“The work that I have always been involved in is all about change,” Kehoe says. “Developing new water supplies, spearheading new utility business models, and promoting a cultural shift in how we manage our resources, is all about change. With change, comes resistance, and knowing resistance is out there helps to lighten that load and prepares me to recognize that it’s all part of the process.”
“At the same time,” she continues, “I am surrounded by inspiration. Our residents embrace conservation as a way of life, using just 43 gallons per person per day and we have new green buildings that treat their own water onsite for toilet flushing and irrigation. At the SFPUC, we’ve adopted a OneWaterSF approach that establishes a cultural shift in the way we manage water and wastewater. It’s no longer Water In, Water Out. It’s all about synergies and creating projects that provide greater water and energy resiliency.”
Kehoe is definitely driven, and it shows in everything she does.
“Addressing our water challenges through innovative and creative solutions requires building partnerships, strategic thinking, making course corrections (adaptive management), hard work, and a sense of humor to keep going when the proverbial bumps in the road are encountered,” she says.
The proverbial bumps in the road are likely to be frequent, but Kehoe is equal parts hard working and a bit of grit. “The grit,” she says, “is the drive that enables me to stick to my goals despite tough issues and setbacks.”
In the next several years, Kehoe’s work will include expanding SFPUC’s existing programs as well as starting a few new initiatives. “We are expanding our Non-potable Water Program to incorporate breweries and hope to see a few breweries in San Francisco collecting and reusing water onsite next year,” Kehoe says. The goal is to see more onsite non-potable water systems extracting both heat and nutrients from wastewater in the next few years. “We are also exploring additional ways to develop drinking water supplies with rainwater and wastewate,” she adds. “We have a pilot project in our building that just started to treat our wastewater to produce water suitable to be included in a future drinking water supply.”
Her passion and perseverance began at a young age and was encouraged throughout her life. Kehoe found her calling and has worked the path of her journey without allowing setbacks change the course. But she makes it clear that it’s been the mentorship she’s received along the way that has helped her stay on track.
She says to the younger generation looking to find their own path, “It’s really important to first do your homework and then find a mentor. Mentors are out there, keep trying and it’s ok to move on to find other mentors. At the same time, be prepared for setbacks and challenges. But once you can see past those unpleasant times, it’s good to reflect on what you learned and understand how you adapted to the change. You will be surprised how much stronger you have become. And try not to let fear get in the way. Don’t be afraid, step forward and give it your best. Every time you do so, you build upon your past efforts and soon you can see where you’ve been and where you want to go.
We’re looking forward to seeing where Paula Kehoe will go next!