Laura Watson was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee as the new director of the Washington Department of Ecology in December.
She was most recently senior assistant attorney general in the Ecology Division of the Attorney General’s Office. As chief legal counsel to the Director of the Department of Ecology, she provided advice and representation to the agency’s administration.
She is also a former deputy solicitor general in the Attorney General’s Office.
She replaced Maia Bellon, who served as Ecology director for nearly seven years.
Watson began her new position Jan. 8.
For her first media interview as director, Watson spoke by telephone with the Capital Press on Jan. 29. The interview has been edited for length.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you become interested in Ecology?
I think, like a lot of people, I became interested in environmental issues just very simply because I love the outdoors, I love natural areas, I love being outdoors, I love outdoor recreation.
We live in this amazingly beautiful state and the desire to protect the beauty of our state, I think is what motivates me.
When I was in college at the University of Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh is where I grew up — I got involved with social justice issues. Specifically, I worked with a women’s homeless population in Pittsburgh and continued my working with that population into my legal career.
When I think about it, it seems to me that environmental protection is really also a social justice issue. I think we all agree everybody deserves clean water, clean air, access to natural areas. It feels to me like an extension of my commitment to those justice issues.
Q. Do you have any agriculture in your background?
I don’t. I’m not from an agricultural family. When I first moved to Thurston County, I had the pleasure of renting a farmhouse on an 80-acre farm. The farmer ran beef cattle on the property. It was wonderful. I feel lazy saying this, right? But I had the pleasure of being able to live on this beautiful, bucolic piece of property and not have to do any of the work of running a farm. But it was a really beautiful piece of property.
Q. What appeals to you about the director position?
... The ability to get out there and collaborate with groups and try to come up with creative solutions to the biggest problems. I’m just three weeks into the job and I’ve already been able to do some of that and hear from a lot of groups. I’m really looking forward to that aspect of it.
Q. With the understanding that you’re still new in the position, are there any priorities you’ve identified?
I’m really still in the process of getting out there and listening to folks — associations, businesses, Ecology staff, groups out there — as to what our main priorities should be.
Having said that, of course there are some things that jump out right away. A big one is climate change resiliency. Whether you’re talking about drought, flooding or wildfires, this is something we really need to address.
If I can use drought as an example, we really need to make sure we have all the necessary infrastructure in place so when we’re dealing with those low water years and drought years, we’re still going to be able to deliver water to communities and farms, and have enough water in the stream for fish.
I’m really proud of the work (Ecology’s) Office of the Columbia River has done in this regard, supporting these efforts. One of my biggest priorities is continuing to support the Office of the Columbia River and see them have more successes down the road.
Q. Will you continue Maia Bellon’s approach in reaching out to farmers and ranchers?
Absolutely, I will plan to do that. It is a big priority of mine to do that. I know Maia started the Agriculture and Water Quality advisory committee close to seven years ago, I think. I never had the pleasure of being able to attend one of those meetings, but now that I’m in this role, and into the future, I’ve heard it’s a very valuable committee, it’s a high priority of mine to continue that.
The way it’s been described to me is “a comfortable but structured conversation” on how we all can work together to protect our water. It’s really a way for us at Ecology to communicate about our work, why it’s important, and to be transparent with the people our work most directly affects.
I don’t want to limit communications with farmers and ranchers just to the committee. I would hope we can build durable relationships so we can have more durable solutions to problems. We all want a thriving economy, we all want a thriving environment, we want a thriving environment that supports the economy.
Farmers and ranchers are so important within our state and to the economy. Selfishly, I like to be able to go to my area grocery store and farmers’ market and get great locally produced agricultural products. It’s really important that we keep those conversations going.
I feel very indebted to Maia Bellon for creating such good relationships out there.
Q. What can the agriculture community expect from Ecology under your leadership?
I’m here to listen. I really do want to hear about some of the challenges that are facing the industry, as well as the priorities.
I met with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers just last week, and it was a great meeting. I really got to learn a lot about the industry.
Our agency’s mission is to protect the environment. The best way for us to do that is if we’re all working together.
Q. What are you looking for from them?
Primarily, let’s not let small problems get any bigger. So if there are issues that folks are having with the Department of Ecology that are making it difficult for us to work together, I would hope people would feel comfortable reaching out directly to me and let’s try to work through those issues together.
I think a lot of the biggest problems arise when there are communication breakdowns. I would hope we’re not going to let that happen and we’re reaching out before those small problems get any bigger.
Q. What would make your term as Ecology director a success in your eyes?
I guess I’d say what probably most directors would say: I’d like to say I made measurable progress toward some of our biggest environmental challenges, whether it’s drought resiliency, climate change or water pollution. And as an agency, we’re focusing our energy and resources on addressing those problems.
Maia made an enormous amount of effort and great strides in addressing some of these issues.
We all know that these issues are big. They don’t get resolved overnight.
Really, at the end of my tenure, I’d want to be able to say to my daughter that, for example, the staff at Ecology did a fabulous job of making more cubic feet of water available, while also protecting flows for fish or keeping more toxic substances out of the environment. I’d be really proud if I were able to do that.
It’s not just what I would hope to accomplish, but how we get there. The only way we get to those great accomplishments is through our partnerships. The more brains we have at the table trying to come up with creative solutions, the more likely we are to hit on the right solution.
Q. Anything we should be sure to include?
We’re all in this together. We’re not going to solve our environmental problems by trying to go at it alone or trying to solve our problems in a silo. I think it’s important we all continue to work together, to communicate well.
I’m pretty much stuck in Olympia during the legislative session, but I am really looking forward to getting out and touring the state. I’ve already received some offers of going out and touring some farms. I’m really looking forward to getting out and being able to do that.