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Veronica Li honored as top Corps regulator

Published Aug. 13, 2015
Veronica Li (foreground) and Sophia Ma (background) take California Rapid Assessment Method measurements in San Diego Creek in Orange County for the Orange County Transit Authority Measure M2 Freeway Program. (Photo courtesy of Sarvy Mahdavi, US EPA)

Veronica Li (foreground) and Sophia Ma (background) take California Rapid Assessment Method measurements in San Diego Creek in Orange County for the Orange County Transit Authority Measure M2 Freeway Program. (Photo courtesy of Sarvy Mahdavi, US EPA)

LOS ANGELES – Veronica Li, a senior project manager in the Los Angeles District’s Regulatory Division, received the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Don Lawyer Regulator of the Year Award during a ceremony held Aug. 6 in Washington D.C.

The award was established in 1984 to honor an outstanding non-supervisory regulator who exemplifies superior public service with a commitment to upholding the Corps' Regulatory mission of protecting aquatic resources while allowing for reasonable development.

”Veronica has been one of our bright stars since she came to Regulatory more than six years ago,” said Dr. Spencer MacNeil, chief of the District’s Transportation and Special Projects Branch. “It is wonderful to see her great accomplishments in the Los Angeles District recognized at the national level in her receiving this prestigious award.”

The citation for the annual award states it recognizes an outstanding Corps regulator who is reasonable, decisive, and timely, and who projects a positive and professional image of the Corps. The regulatory decisions made demonstrate a balanced approach of protecting the environment and authorizing needed development.

“Regulatory is a challenging job (of) balancing decisions,” said Li.

Before joining the Corps in 2009, Li gained expertise in multi-modal transportation projects working as an environmental planner at the consulting firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff. With that experience and subsequent assignments at the Corps, Li has become recognized as an accomplished regulator. 

“When I was in consulting, I was writing environmental documents describing how the environment was affected, but I wasn’t effecting any change in the projects to reduce those impacts,” Li said. “In regulatory, even the lowest level project manager has that mission to ensure there’s avoidance and minimization in every project. So we’re given great latitude to effect change in every project, with every encounter, which is a really powerful responsibility.”

Li has helped develop mitigation approaches that address transportation-related impacts on the nation’s waters. As a member of Regulatory Division’s Transportation and Special Projects Branch, Li leads a state-wide team of regulators engaged in developing environmental impact statements and reviewing regulatory permit applications.

“Veronica is a tremendously talented project manager and leader, who constantly seeks ways to improve the organization and assist her teammates,” MacNeil said.

Li is the District’s liaison to Caltrans District 8, in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, California’s largest Caltrans district with an area larger than that of West Virginia, and nine other states. She currently leads a critical effort to develop alternative permitting procedures for Orange County Transportation Authority’s Measure M2 Freeway program, a 20-plus year freeway improvement program to relieve chronic congestion in Southern California. The new permitting procedures are intended to increase efficiency, transparency and effectiveness in evaluating aquatic resource impacts and to provide compensatory mitigation in advance of the planned project’s impacts.

Her intensive efforts, including providing training for Caltrans and other agencies, have improved applicants’ proficiency and provided timely and reasonable decisions. She was a key presenter at the District’s July 16 Compensatory Mitigation Workshop, which was provided to the public at large, including many agency representatives and consultants. The efforts have resulted in improved relationships with those regulated agencies, better communication and much more efficient permit processing.

Li’s responsibilities are not limited to working on the nation’s highways.

“One of Veronica’s most significant contributions is acting as the South Pacific Division’s project delivery  team lead in consistently applying section 404 of the Clean Water Act requirements in processing Corps permit applications for the California High Speed Train, an 800-mile-long system of track and stations that is the largest public infrastructure project in California’s history,” MacNeil said.

Li became a regulator to help the regulatory process improve for the Corp’s customers.

“Other reasons I joined Regulatory were I felt the process was too complicated, and when I was a consultant, I didn’t know why it would take so long to get a permit,” Li said. “I wanted to join, one, because the mission aligned with my ideals ,and also, because I wanted to see how I could be more effective and help applicants, like Caltrans and other agencies or people trying to get permits, to figure out the Regulatory process.”

The statewide 800-mile California High Speed Train project will cross through 17 counties and is broken into 10 segments, each with its own environmental impact statement and consultant team. Li manages the Corps’ role as a cooperating agency on the preparation of the Burbank to Los Angeles segment environmental impact statement. She has helped manage the regional project delivery team, including representatives from the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Federal Railroad Administration, to evaluate opportunities for regional consistency on Regulatory policy issues. In doing so, Li helped develop a “Data Needs” document to ensure all parties agree early in the process what information is needed and useful to increase permit process efficiency on all 10 rail segments state-wide.

“The relationships that I have developed over the years with Caltrans, OCTA , and the High Speed Rail Authority have really molded the way I work with them in trying to be more effective by finding efficiencies in the process  and helping them understand our program so that they can submit applications that are complete so we can move forward quickly with our decisions,” Li said. “We have an extremely challenging workload and Regulatory framework. We are expected to be expert at every field: biologists, geologists, planners, hydrologist, soil scientists, and engineers. Not all applicants or consultants can be experts in our program, but we can provide guidance and training to make the process more transparent.”

Li’s contributions to these efforts increase efficiency, transparency and effectiveness of the regulatory program, MacNeil said.

In addition to these many responsibilities, Li also has deployed as a long-time member of the District’s Emergency Housing Team, conducting NEPA compliance. She recently completed a 120-day detail in Planning Division to broaden her experience and to fill a critical need. Li is also a graduate of Leadership Development Program Levels 1 and 2 and is currently a member of the Division’s 2015 LDP3 cadre.

Li is a vital member of the Regulatory team.

“I work with other regulators and Divisions in the District and couldn’t have accomplished anything without their support and guidance,” said Li. “Regulators are some of the best people I’ve worked with. I bug other regulators, other senior project managers and co-workers to get help or advice all the time. Everyone’s so helpful, there’s so much knowledge around the district. I look to others inside and outside our branch to become a better regulator and to learn the program. I hope that one day I can be good enough for others to turn to because I would do anything for my Regulatory family.”

Li has teammates who acknowledge her as a great regulatory team member.

“Veronica's an excellent project manager who’s also assisted with training and workshops for Caltrans, including Ordinary High Water Mark Training, Emergency Permitting Workshop, and the Mitigation Ratio Checklist Workshop,” said fellow worker Stephanie Hall. “She's a hard worker, gracious co-worker, never complaining, and has amazing endurance. I'm her No. 1 fan and cheerleader! Oh, she's due to be a mom in early December, too!”

While recognition is nice, Li said the real significance is the potential results of the work by her and her Regulatory colleagues.

“It has been extremely satisfying to work with agencies such as OCTA that have been progressive in thinking about their mitigation needs.  I hope that our hard work will enable other agencies to think more progressively about ways to minimize impacts to aquatic resources and find creative solutions to implement comprehensive mitigation.”