30 November 2023

Asking the “Why”

Water has always been a powerful part of my life. What Florida lacks in mountains, it makes up for in water. As a kid, I would make mud pies, play in the rain and rescue tadpoles from puddles. In high school, I would load my kayak into the back of my mom’s F150 and pick up my friend for a river adventure. We once bought an inflatable raft from Target to use for a down-and-back river trip. As we learned, it was not, in fact, a great idea. I did not have the arm strength to use the plastic paddle to properly battle the downstream currents. Luckily for me, my friend did, but this was one of my first lessons in hydraulics.

Once, my friend convinced me to go on a river camping trip but neglected to mention that recent rains had flooded the Peace River. We were kayaking through the forest canopy, level with the tops of the trees, wondering where we would camp for the night—this was one of my first lessons in hydrology. 

I have stared down a tornado when a storm took out the power to the gas station at which I had planned to fill up my car. I have body-surfed in stormy ocean waves and swum in calm crystal blue springs. I nearly drowned saving my cousin from a deep area at a local swimming hole and I have hiked through swamps and marshes to beat the high tide back to our boat. I have sunk in quicksand and waded through black muck. Water holds a big place in my heart, and much like the Grand Canyon, water has shaped me. 

For a long time, I found myself afraid to be an engineer. What if I didn’t know enough? What if I messed something up? So instead, I went into regulation at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). I loved being out in nature, and when I saw a TCEQ field investigator position pop up I imagined I would be hiking through pristine forests taking stream samples and counting butterflies, or at least I hoped. And while they did have that position, minus the butterflies, at the office where I applied, that was not the available position. 

Working at the TCEQ, I was not able to put all of my engineering training to use, but I found that regulation was its own kind of hard. It involved requests from State Senators to address a constituent’s complaints, residents filing petitions, answering calls from reporters and addressing failing water plants or contaminated drinking water. Like in engineering, there are high stakes and no room for error. Aside from all of the less-attractive nuances of the job, we were also helping people—alleviating fears by answering questions, finding resources for people and keeping water and wastewater systems in good repair through accountability. 

There was a pivotal moment for me one day at the TCEQ while I was standing at a water plant in disrepair with my clipboard in hand. I remember looking around and thinking “someone should do something about this.” And then I realized, “Oh wait, that’s me!” It was my job to do something about it. I clicked my pen and started writing down everything that needed fixing. 

As an engineer, project manager, designer, drafter, administrator or whatever your role may be, there will likely come a moment when you think, hm, something should be done about this, and the answer is, “Why not you?” We all possess the ability to create positive change, and the responsibility to do so.

Working at the TCEQ for five years gave me great appreciation for regulations. Regulations help protect people and the environment; it gives us a standard to fall back on. After working a while at the TCEQ and slowly revealing my engineering background, my coworkers would ask, “Why are you here?” Eventually, I reflected on my goals, and realized that I did want to pursue my Professional Engineering License, as I saw my college friends progressing in their careers and getting their PEs. If they could do it, what was stopping me?

So I started applying. I figured my regulatory knowledge would help me fill in the gaps that I lacked in design experience. I found EHRA Engineering and was drawn to the family-oriented company. I liked the fact that they were an old and established company and that they designed water plants and wastewater treatment plants. While I was nervous at first about being billable and not knowing the in’s and out’s of design, I quickly found that I had knowledgeable and experienced teammates to help guide me. 

One thing that has been important to me as an engineer – a standard I set for myself to be a competent engineer – is to understand the “why.” Why does that work? Why do we do it that way? Yes, these components worked for that water plant or this wastewater treatment plant, but will they work for the next one? How do I know? I leaned on my regulatory knowledge, diving in more to local design standards at the City and County level. I looked at design manuals and white papers, and I reached out to experts. I wanted and needed to know the answers. For this reason and many others, I love and respect the core values here at EHRA. It helped center me on the fact that knowing why we do something helps us own the work. It also ensures we do the right thing. Can we go down a size and save the client money while also keeping the plant working great? Why or why not? Asking ourselves these questions allows us to keep it fresh through innovative solutions and be a leader in such an impactful industry. Most importantly, working together as one team helps us accomplish these goals together.

We are all capable of great things, more than we even imagine. What separates average from greatness is passion. This principle holds true across various domains—education, sports, careers or the broader spectrum of life itself. I consider myself fortunate to have shaped my life around my passions, namely, my affinity for water and my commitment to enhancing the quality of life for both the environment and the communities around me. Passion ignites an inner drive, compelling each of us to persistently seek answers and resist succumbing to fear in our pursuit of understanding.