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photo of Erika FarrisErika Farris

Recent IPA alumna takes pride in working to protect our water

Erika Farris (MA ’09) is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellow within the Office of Wastewater Management at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Soon she’ll begin a two-year internship through the Federal Career Intern Program, which, upon successful completion, will lead to a permanent position at the EPA.

With the current political administration, the EPA has committed to strengthening environmental protection nationally, enacting science-based policies, and increasing agency transparency.  The rulemaking group for which Farris works is proposing to strengthen the national stormwater program, which she hopes will lead to a national reduction of stormwater impacts on water quality and quantity.  She cites the fact that regulations have not been changed in more than a decade, despite the changing technologies and perspectives toward stormwater management.

Farris says, “I entered the EPA at an extremely favorable time for environmental policy and am excited to be participating in activities that are meant to achieve environmental improvements nationwide.”

In fact, Farris is thrilled to be where she is now.

“I am excited that my job surrounds me with extremely intelligent people with very diverse backgrounds from whom I can learn. I am also excited to be working everyday in downtown Washington, D.C., where all of the action happens.”

Farris received her master's degree at the University of Delaware in Urban Affairs & Public Policy with a specialization in Water Resources Policy & Management. During her two-year program, she worked as a research assistant for the Institute for Public Administration (IPA) through its Water Resources Agency (WRA).

“In my current position in the Office of Wastewater Management, I work on a variety of projects related to stormwater-discharge permitting. Stormwater discharge is generated when precipitation from rain and snowmelt events flows over land or impervious surfaces and does not percolate into the ground. The EPA regulates stormwater discharges from municipal, construction, and industrial sources through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Stormwater Program,” Farris says.

“Specifically, I assist with writing and issuing a new NPDES permit for stormwater discharges from construction activities and am a member of a workgroup for new national stormwater rulemaking.  In addition, I work on a variety of tasks related to the EPA’s green infrastructure initiative, which promotes stormwater-management approaches that mimic natural hydrologic conditions through infiltration, evapotranspiration, and capture and reuse of stormwater.”

That’s a lot of scientific talk that boils down to the fact that this IPA alum is helping improve and protect water, which WRA’s director Gerald Kauffman believes is our most precious resource.

“We are proud that Erika is part of the new EPA,” Kauffman says. “Erika was a ‘triple threat’ at UD, excelling at education, research, and public service as a graduate research assistant with WRA.”

Kauffman adds, “One of her accomplishments of which we’re especially proud is her winning a bronze medal for a proposal on watershed-based research as part of a national competition [over submittals from University of Virginia, Michigan, and Dartmouth], which was presented at the American Water Resources Association conference in New Orleans.”

So, how did Farris land a job at the EPA? She says, “I obtained my ORISE Fellowship by attending an EPA Office of Water job fair.”  It wasn’t quite that easy, of course. The University of Delaware played a big part in her preparation for such an opportunity.

“My academic program at UD also helped to prepare me for my work at the EPA,” Farris explains. “The Master of Arts in Urban Affairs & Public Policy program provided me with a solid academic background for work in the public sector. The flexibility of the program allowed me to choose courses that related most to my career interests. My experience in my master's program instilled in me the importance of understanding the full impact of policies on communities, which I think is an important perspective to have when working in the public sector.”

Farris adds, “I believe the experiential learning students obtain through IPA’s research assistantships provides students with a competitive advantage for working in the public sector. My research assistantship at WRA allowed me to apply coursework theory to practical applications. Through my assistantship, I obtained real-world experience working on projects that assisted state agencies, nonprofit agencies, and the local community. I not only gained experience in water-resource policy and education, but gained technical skills in the use of geographic information systems and report preparation.

“IPA also provided me with countless opportunities to network in the water-resources field,” Farris says. One of these opportunities came in the form of organizing a new water-related group on campus.

With the help of the active Delaware Chapter of the American Water Resources Association (AWRA), she and other research assistants at WRA began a Student Chapter of AWRA, which allowed them to gain leadership experience in the field. Farris has continued her involvement with AWRA and is on the student-activities conference-planning committee for the 2010 AWRA Annual Water Resources Conference, which is being co-chaired by IPA assistant policy scientist Martha Corrozi Narvaez, who worked closely with Erika during her master’s work.

“Erika and [then fellow student] Maureen [Nelson] were presented with the idea to start the student chapter and they jumped on it,” Corrozi Narvaez says. “They really started everything on their own, from setting up meetings, to planning mailings, everything about running the organization. Erika had done such a good job that I asked her to help with this [AWRA] conference.”

“The most important thing I learned while working for IPA,” says Farris, “is the importance of the role of public service in helping out our communities. IPA also instilled in me the perspective that public policy should be a collaborative process.  I believe such a perspective is critical in the public policy field, particularly in crafting environmental-protection policies that address the concerns of communities.”

Farris concludes, “My experiences at IPA influenced my decision to pursue a career in public service.”

“I feel extremely fortunate to have found a position that directly relates to my academic work and my personal passion,” Farris adds. “At this stage in my career there is no other place I would rather be working [than at the EPA]. I am currently gaining experience working on water-resource policies that may result in national improvements to water, which I find extremely rewarding.”

Of course, any federal government job comes with its own challenges. For new employees at the EPA, the learning curve is steep. “The first challenge I encountered when I began my fellowship at the EPA,” Farris admits, “was attempting to decode the agency ‘lingo.’ At EPA, acronyms exist for nearly every program or policy, so it takes awhile to get used to the agency’s own ‘language.’”

Another challenge for Farris, who is a real outdoors person, is that most all her work on national-level stormwater policy is done in an office setting, so she actually has little opportunity to work in the environment she’s striving to protect. “Consequently,” Farris says, “in my free time I try to get outside as much as possible. In the spring, summer, and fall I enjoy hiking, camping, and gardening, while in the winter, I enjoy snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. My work in environmental protection has increased my appreciation for pristine environments, and so I enjoy traveling to beautiful parts of the world as much as I can.” 

Speaking of traveling, this summer Farris will marry fiancé Mike, who is also a University of Delaware grad and a teacher in the Washington, D.C., public school system. They met on an undergraduate study abroad trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. “We are planning to honeymoon on Hainan Island, off the coast of mainland China, and visit parts of Vietnam,” says Farris.

It only makes sense that she’d want to be somewhere surrounded by water.

photo courtesy of Erika Farris

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