At the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, we celebrate our water workers every day. And what better month than Women’s History Month to highlight our gratitude for our female water workers who bring clean, safe water straight to our home every single day?
Did you know that women represent just one in five workers in our industry? That number is small but mighty and continues to grow. This month, we’re highlighting three all-star female water workers who are passionate about what they do.
Let’s dive into water industry work through the experiences of Heather Dyer, Leighanne Kirk and Lyndy Lewis. They encourage other women to tap into the exciting opportunities of the water world – whether it’s through environmental science, engineering and project development, operations and field work or administrative assistance, the water industry is flowing with opportunities.
CEO/General Manager at San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District (SBVMD)
As CEO/General Manager for the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District (SBVMD), Heather Dyer’s role involves developing strategies to ensure Southern California can count on a reliable and resilient water supply for the next 50+ years. She focuses on long-term planning efforts, especially in the age of climate change.
A Seattle, Wash.-native, her passion for the water industry began when she traveled from Seattle to Alaska to work with a salmon cannery. That’s where her hunger to protect natural habitats, species and environmental factors for wildlife was born. Flash forward to 2010, when Dyer teamed up with the water industry through her work as a fisheries biologist and regulator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“The first thing that gave me a foot in the door with the water industry was that I cared about the resources and the people and became directly involved in helping solve complex environmental problems related to water supply projects,” Dyer said.
That particular environmental problem was the protection of the Santa Ana Sucker, one of only a few fish native to Southern California. The number of Santa Ana Suckers has been threatened by outside factors and habitat loss. Dyer explained that there are impacts from water supply projects to the natural resources of a watershed but that those impacts can be adequately offset through habitat conservation activities. She moved to Southern California to fulfill the Endangered Species Act for this region’s projects. Through this work, she formed a special partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Southern California water districts to provide strategic tactics for the protection and conservation of the Santa Ana Sucker.
“I have worked with regional agencies including SAWPA through collaboration on the Santa Ana Sucker conservation team – the team was already looking for ways to protect that species, and the water agencies were looking for a viable path to receive federal and state permits to remove surface flow from the river system,” Dyer said.
Dyer is currently the only female General Manager of a water district within the district partners of SAWPA. She regards this as an honor and also knows that her background being rooted in environmental protection and conservation of endangered species makes her unique in the water world.
“The most striking difference between myself and other water agency general managers was that I was an endangered species biologist and a former regulator. It was an amazing step that our board was open to the idea of someone like me with a background in environmental science and conservation to lead this agency and its long-term planning efforts,” Dyer said.
Dyer expressed true gratitude to all her colleagues throughout the watershed for their outpouring of support as she took on the title of GM in December 2019. She also offers advice to those who are considering a water career.
“My first recommendation is to find your passion. The water industry is a very broad field that is full of diverse opportunities that people otherwise would not know about,” Dyer said. “So, you’ve got to get out there, get to know people and find your niche. Step into the future with intention and locate a job that you would do for free. Then figure out how to get paid for it.”
Principal Water Resources Specialist at Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD)
As a Principal Water Resources Specialist, Leighanne Kirk assists the Water Resources and Facilities Planning departments with special projects. Her projects include the largest grant-funded project that EMWD has ever been awarded – a $45 million grant (with a total program cost of $90 million) called the Perris North Basin Groundwater Contamination Prevention and Remediation Program. She also works on the Santa Ana River Conservation and Conjunctive Use Program, which is a multi-agency and multi-benefit partnership aimed at providing regional groundwater storage.
“Both of these projects provide great value to EMWD’s water supply portfolio and long-term water supply reliability for the Inland Empire.” Kirk said. “I am proud to be part of such groundbreaking initiatives to bring local and reliable groundwater supplies to the region.”
Along her water journey, Kirk has crossed paths with many female water workers across all levels who have inspired her. Kirk also offers advice to young people seeking a career in the water industry:
“There are always job opportunities opening up in the water industry and sometimes you may have to take on a different role to get your foot in the door,” Kirk said. “Don’t pass on opportunities that you are afraid of but that you feel is the right move for you and your career. Accept these challenges and follow your instincts – you won’t regret it.”
EMWD offers several workforce development opportunities including a college internship and two apprenticeship programs for electrical and mechanical maintenance. EMWD also partners with other agencies including the Western Riverside Council of Governments and CivicSparks which feature fellowship programs. In addition, EMWD’s partnership with Riverside County Workforce Development, California Family Life Center, and ResCare Workforce Services allows them to offer the Youth Ecology Corps Program for young adults with a high school diploma who are interested in water industry job opportunities. Visit http://www.emwd.org/joinemwd to learn more.
Principal Engineer and Regulatory Compliance at Western Municipal Water District (WMWD)
Lyndy Lewis began her water industry career 16 years ago. She explained that the water industry found her, not the other way around. Today, Lewis works at Western Municipal Water District (Western) as a Principal Engineer with a focus on regulatory compliance.
“When I graduated from college, I met a gentleman who worked at the water and power department of my hometown.” said Lewis, “I applied for a position there, not fully aware of the possibilities ahead but it was the door that opened up my whole career.”
Lewis’ current position is in water compliance. Water compliance teams act like watch dogs and ensure that Western’s projects and operations fully comply with state and federal standards so that customers receive safe, reliable, high-quality water 24 hours per day, seven days per week and 365 days per year.
“My team and I work to secure permits and oversee the air quality, drinking water quality, wastewater quality and hazardous waste elements of operations and make sure that everything complies with the ever-changing federal and state standards,” Lewis said. “In fact, California has some of the highest standards for drinking water in the world, so I take great pride in helping Western ensure we are always meeting or exceeding these standards for our customers.”
Along the way, Lewis has met several women who inspired her, including Jayne Joy. She is a mentor to Lewis and currently is an executive officer at Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. Both women hold a background in chemical engineering.
“Jane was so knowledgeable and eager to help. Her confidence inspired me to speak up, ask questions and make my voice heard. Jane is a very genuine person who wants to see everyone shine and succeed. Her influence has greatly inspired my career path and guided my efforts along the way,” said Lewis.
Lewis believes that the confidence she has learned from mentors encouraged her to stay involved and follow her passion. She also explained that the water industry is a tight-knit, community-oriented industry that provides an essential service and helps protect public health.
“I love what I do and part of that is being an example to my daughters. I dream that one day they grow up to be passionate about what they do,” Lewis said. “I believe that passion helps to build confidence in the next generation of leaders.”