Laura Briefer, Salt Lake County special project manager for Public Utilities, protects—and cherishes—our watershed.
by Katherine Pioli
When you work up at the town of Alta and your mayor says you need to spend a little time skiing to know your community….” Laura Briefer laughs, letting her thought trail off. “I did,” she picks up again after a moment, “and I love skiing-it is one of my passions now.”
I am sitting with Laura Briefer, the new Special Projects manager for Salt Lake City’s Public Utilities. Her confession, of developing a passion for skiing late in life, comes to me as a surprise.
To any casual observer Briefer looks, acts and talks like a woman of the mountains. Her athletic figure seems made for days hiking through the Wasatch. Her sense of style is natural, elegant but without metropolitan pomp. And when she exclaims, “I love living big,” segueing into a loving monologue about the dramatic landscape of the Albion basin, her enthusiasm mimics that of a life-long mountaineer. But for most of her life, Briefer has been a Southern Californian.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, she later moved to Santa Barbara where she earned a degree in environmental studies. “I kept moving north,” she recalls, “and finally settled in the Bay area.”
As Briefer tells it, serendipity, not a love for skiing, brought her and her husband to Utah. Looking for a change, the two had considered a move to the mountains but were looking at Colorado.
Then, by chance, Laura met Bill Levitt, mayor of the town of Alta for 34 years. Levitt happened to be looking for an assistant administrator for the town. “I had been to Alta only once before and I wan’t a very big skier, but talking with Bill Levitt was so inspiring I took the job; if it didn’t work out, we could always go back to California.” She and her husband moved to Utah in 2002.
Her immediate connection to the Wasatch through her job plugged her into a unique Utah scene. She says the work and the place fit her perfectly. Levitt drew on Briefer’s environmental sensibilities, taught and nurtured from an early age by her parents and grandparents.
“Levitt is the person who really inspired me to work in the public sector and to work on environmental issues,” explains Briefer. His guidance also led her to her current position. “When I worked for the town of Alta, my work was very similar to what I do now for the City, dealing with watershed projects.”
As special project manager for Public Utilities, Laura Briefer’s responsibilities now span numerous environmental sustainability projects for Salt Lake’s public water supply-encompassing drinking water, storm water and sewer water. “I was hired to integrate our work with the sustainability planning that is going on with the City and making sure that we’re meeting and exceeding those goals while also developing our own sustainability plan.”
Challenges in Briefer’s job are not your everyday pressures. Climate change is a huge concern in her work. Each year the slowly decreasing snow pack in the mountains affects the City’s year-round water supply. Pressure also comes from population growth both in the valley and the canyons.
“As a water department we feel very strongly that we need to adapt to those changes. Right now we need to know how that might affect our infrastructure and sustainability planning.” For the time being, while studying how the Public Utilities might have to react to changes in the future, Briefer also works with groups such as Save Our Canyons to come up with current solutions to these pressures. “We believe as a department that wilderness protection is probably the best long-term protection of our watershed,” says Briefer. “Longterm protection [through expanding the wilderness bill in the Wasatch] is for us purely a watershed issue; that being said, it also supplies other benefits with respect to open space and a more wild experience for the future.”
What will be left for future generations, whether there will be enough water to support the state’s growing population, are questions many Utahns ask. Again, her concern for wilderness and the Wasatch shows that Laura Briefer can think like a Utahn. Will her own children, ages one and three, be able to ski the powder that she and her husband now enjoy? Laura is confident that her work for maintaining a healthy watershed will ensure a happy future. “My kids are going to grow up to ski Alta. I am excited that they have that opportunity.”
Katherine Pioli is a CATALYST staff writer.