Karlene Thomas is a principal and owner at Pinyon Environmental, Inc. She is an Environmental Professional and licensed Professional Engineer with extensive consulting and project management experience. She has a strong background in environmental compliance, water quality, hazardous materials/waste, design-build project delivery, and permitting. Ms. Thomas’ experience has led to her being skilled at solving complex problems – including identifying strategies to reduce project costs, expedite environmental permitting, and negotiate practical solutions with regulatory agencies. She has a passion for STEM education and community service, is an outdoor enthusiast, and avid rock climber, and loves to call Colorado home.
Q: How do you see the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funding helping to increase resiliency in addressing the impacts of the water crisis in the Southwest?
Karlene: I’ve been working on some projects with ARPA funding; however, these tend to be smaller types of projects. For example, one project recently advertised was for a rural mountain community, next to a beautiful lake which is heavily dependent on tourism. Most of the residences have septic systems so in order to be protective of lake water quality they want to connect to a centralized wastewater treatment plant.
I also attended one of the federal webinars on water infrastructure where they said that the IIJA funding would be coming through State Revolving Funds (SRF). The interesting thing is that 40% of those funds have to be allocated toward disadvantaged communities, which is a big dollar amount. I think in places like Colorado where you have the front range – so from Fort Collins down to Colorado Springs/Pueblo – where there’s a really heavy urban area and then the entire rest of the state is fairly rural, the biggest difference is that money will be spent in the rural areas to potentially increase resiliency. We also have a large number of dams that are structurally insufficient in Colorado that might also see funding. Either way, I think the rural areas are where we are going to see the biggest benefit in Colorado.
Q: How can we help municipalities be prepared for extreme weather events?
Karlene: Improving resiliency and sound “what if” planning are both key to helping municipalities prepare for extreme weather events. We, as an engineering industry, need to support our clients in building more resilient infrastructure. As environmental engineers, we don’t get involved in that aspect as much as civil engineers, but we can talk to them about resiliency needs and planning around those needs. The same goes for supply chain issues and the need for proactive planning; I think it’s more about planning and working with stakeholders that are associated with the municipality to get everybody on board to build better rather than fix it later.
Another area we work in is waste minimization, where we also use that type of systems approach. In other words, taking a systems engineering mindset rather than looking at individual issues in each department, in order to bring it all together. By doing so, we’re able to make considerable changes to how waste is being generated, stored, and disposed of, to reduce emissions and impacts to climate change as well as social impacts.
Q: Throughout your career, what regulatory changes influenced our impact on the environment? How has public opinion influenced regulatory changes?
Karlene: Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked heavily in the regulatory environment of the Clean Water Act, which has seen a lot of changes. I’ve seen the States and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) get serious about construction, industrial, and municipal stormwater management to protect our Nation’s water supply. In addition, regulations controlling point source discharges, for example, industrial and municipal wastewater, have become so stringent that new technology is needed to meet standards. Some of these changes have come strictly from regulatory agencies but the public plays a large part in this process. I am sure every student of the environment has seen the old pictures of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio on fire in 1969, the public outcry from that helped push forward the adoption of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Public involvement has only increased over the last 50 years, especially in my home state of Colorado where the public is passionate about protecting natural resources, which is a big reason why people live here.
Even more recently, we’re seeing a public push on sustainability/resiliency to reduce our use of and impact on natural resources. So, I think sometimes the regulators lead out, but there’s been a lot of pressure from the public as well.
For more market trends, check out our most recent article in which we explore how supply chain challenges are impacting project planning and implementation across infrastructure markets.
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