A Sense of Hometown Pride in the Owens Valley

By Jessica Johnson

When you head north on Highway 395 towards Mammoth Lakes, you pass by the small towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and the city of Bishop. Many travelers and visitors to the Eastern Sierra region often ask why they see so many LADWP vehicles, signs and facilities while traveling this route.

LADWP, on behalf of the City of Los Angeles, owns and maintains more than 314,000 acres of land in the Eastern Sierra in order to operate the Los Angeles Aqueduct System. Between the Water Operations Division and Power System Divisions, LADWP Northern District has more than 300 employees who work and live in Kern, Inyo and Mono Counties.

Working as biologists, maintenance and construction helpers, aqueduct and reservoir keepers, real estate officers and power plant operators, among many other positions, these employees are not only part of the Owens Valley community today, many also grew up here and attended local schools. In fact, there are over 100 employees who are alumni of Bishop Union High School, Big Pine, Owens Valley or Lone Pine High School. For many, working in the community they grew up and went to school in evokes a sense of hometown pride that makes working for LADWP in the Owens Valley unique.

Lori Gillem, a Watershed Resources Supervisor and LADWP employee of 17 years, did not plan to work for the Department when she left college, and did not have plans to return to the Valley. Towards the end of Lori’s undergraduate program, her father, who was an electrical distribution mechanic in the Owens Valley, encouraged her to start taking civil service exams.

“The Owens Valley is a unique and difficult location to move to. The rural life can be a hard adjustment for young adults and families; however, I do feel a sense of hometown pride. It is fun to give back by helping judge local science fairs and assisting advanced biology students with projects,” said Gillem. “It feels good to be able to be a part of the community as a resident and an LADWP employee.”

Small town living is not for everyone, but for LADWP’s Northern District employees, having an office in the Eastern Sierra is a perfect fit.




Water and Power Board Commissioner Susana Reyes shares her personal history and version of Pinoy pride

Los Angeles Celebrates Filipino American History Month in October

Board of Water and Power Commissioner Susana Reyes

Susana Reyes retired from LADWP in April 2019 following 32 years of City and LADWP service. She was most recently the director of the LADWP’s Low Income Customer Access program in Customer Service but had worn many hats before then having worked in the General Manager’s Office, Human Resources, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Department of General Services. The long-time public servant was excited to finally jump into retirement when she received a call from the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti just three days after officially retiring. It was a call of duty, but nothing like any of the calls she had taken previously from bosses and mentors. She was asked to serve the ratepayers of the LADWP with a seat on the Board of Water and Power commission.

The Filipino Americans at LADWP gathered to share a proud moment with Commissioner Susana Reyes, in celebration of Filipino American History Month in October. Photo by Chris Corsmeier.

“I hadn’t even had a minute to settle into retirement,” the commissioner laughingly recalls. “But how can I say no to the Mayor, and the unique opportunity to be the first LADWP retiree and Filipino American to serve on the board?” Since her first commission meeting on June 12, 2019, Commissioner Reyes has made her presence on the Board known and felt, asking tough questions of staff and pushing the envelope to advance many LADWP initiatives including those related to sustainability and equity.

But the Board meeting on October 8th was special to her. During her opening remarks, the commissioner proudly spotlighted her cultural roots and announced that October is Filipino American History Month.  The month-long holiday has been observed in California since 2009 through a resolution passed by California State Senator Leland Yee. Today, Los Angeles is home to the largest Filipino population outside of the Philippines, and Historic Filipino town just outside of Downtown is the first official geographic designation honoring the contributions of Filipinos in America. It is a special time to celebrate Filipino Americans who work hard every day to contribute to the nation’s second largest city as well as the entire United States. Among those are the approximately 600 who are part of the LADWP workforce and the thousands of others working for the City of Los Angeles. Addressing the Filipino-Americas present at the Board meeting, Commissioner Reyes said, “Representation is very important for the Filipino American community. To all my fellow Filipino Americans, this is a time and opportunity to reflect upon your achievements and highlight your diverse contributions to our national history and culture. I am excited to celebrate with all of you.”

Photo credit: @mayorofLA on Instagram

Towards the end of October after taking a commemorative photo with nearly 150 LADWP employees who identify as Filipino American, Commissioner Reyes settled into her office on the top floor of the LADWP Headquarters. Looking to the iconic Los Angeles City Hall she said, “Later this week, City Hall will be lit like the colors of the Philippine flag. It will be quite a sight and the Mayor’s Office will be hosting a celebration of Filipino American leaders especially the ‘Pinay’ (female Filipinos, a colloquial shortened version of Filipinas) visionaries.” Sure enough, the Mayor’s Instagram page captured the landmark lit up in the colors of the Philippine flag on October 25th.

A Pinay visionary herself, Susana Reyes has quite a personal history that was built on strong family support and a character she describes as “non-conforming” that she carried with her all these years. Born and raised in the Philippine capital of Manila, she is the second in a family of 3 girls and one boy. Her mother was also a civil servant but left public service in the Philippines to be a full-time mom when her father’s legal career representing the aeronautics industry brought the entire family to Hawaii, California and later back to Manila. Commissioner Reyes recalls that she and her siblings grew up with what she describes as a diverse view of the world. “I eat anything. I make friends anywhere,” she shares. “Having gone to different places growing up, I developed openness to everyone around me, and I’ve always found it strange, even at a young age, to experience other people who may not be as welcoming of other cultures and backgrounds as I was raised to be.”

She looks back to her college days back in Manila. Amidst political turmoil during the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, the younger Susana produced and directed radical plays in college that criticized corruption, waste, pollution, and rampart poverty. She took her plays to different barrios in Manila and joined protest marches, inspiring and empowering the disadvantaged but not without the threat of arrest. “My mom used to watch the news all the time hoping she wouldn’t see me getting arrested by the police,” she says. “While I’m sure it was difficult for them at the time, my parents allowed me to thrive, never questioning my activism.”  In return, Reyes continued to make her parents proud by completing her education with the highest honors.

Having experienced the third world struggles with water shortage, regular “brownouts” or power interruptions, and flooding because of poor infrastructure, Commissioner Reyes had many reasons to be spurred to activism. Seeing calamities and natural disasters, her perspective set earlier in her life led to a passion for the environment manifested in significant ways including launching and overseeing the City of Los Angeles’ Facilities Recycling Program, holding the Vice President post on the Sierra Club’s Board and executive committee, and taking the role of Senior Sustainability Analyst in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.  “Such experiences gave me the courage to look at the world through a different lens, and maybe, even, to polish those views for others, “ Reyes stated.

As robust as her career has been, Commissioner Reyes is also a mother and she, like many women in the workforce, balanced both responsibilities. As she raised her four children, she also made sure she imparted to them Filipino values and culture, fostering in them the same passion for the community and providing the strong family support she had while growing up. Her eyes light up talking about her family.

“It’s important to me that my kids know who they are and understand their roots. I’ve shared with my kids our family’s history including old World War II stories from my grandparents. They grew up here but they speak and eat Filipino. I even scolded them in Filipino when they were little, just so no one else understood what I was saying,” she says laughing.  “But I’m very proud of the fact that all my children are gainfully employed, raising their families and giving back to the community. I think that’s the test to see if I’ve been doing it right.” she says.

Recently, one of Commissioner Reyes’ twins decided that instead of having a birthday party, she would gather her friends and have them help put together backpacks for foster children. The backpacks each had a blanket, teddy bear, a pajama set, food and snacks, helping the children in foster care have something constant in their lives should they need to move from house to house. Her other daughter who co-owns Coolhaus Ice Cream Sandwiches donated inventory to air passengers when Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast and cut off power to their New York warehouse. Instead of wasting perfectly good ice cream sandwiches, Coolhaus helped stock airlines that had limited food supplies also as a result of the disaster.

“I’ve told my children that they are privileged and as such, they need to step up,” Commissioner Reyes said. “They get it. And I’m proud to see that they are visible, contributing and they make a difference.”

When asked about what makes her proudest to be Filipino, Commissioner Reyes points out how Filipinos make easy friends. She says, “Filipinos usually treat everyone else like family, calling family friends ‘Tito’ (uncle) or ‘Tita’ (aunt). We are inclusive and welcoming of others.” By building her network, Commissioner Reyes herself found it easier to be mentored professionally and to mentor in return. She credits previous supervisors who challenged her to take on different assignments and apply for positions as she progressed through her LADWP career. Over the years as she took on supervisory roles, she mentored many others both Filipino Americans and otherwise. “When I recognized talent, I gave stretch assignments and challenged my staff so they can grow even more in their profession. It’s my way of giving back and I’m proud to see many whom I’ve helped grow into management and supervisory roles.”

She adds, “Another thing I’m proud about as a Filipino is that we are a hardworking people. You’ll see that Filipinos throw themselves at their work and are very willing to finish assignments. And that hard work is driven by ambition and love for family. Filipinos are committed to providing for their families, planning for their kids’ future, pushing to get them an education and a career. And while we make sure we find ways to provide for our children, we are also thinking of ways to support extended family in need.”

She observes that despite being hardworking, many Filipino Americans unknowingly tend to be submissive to other cultures in the workplace, and that this may be attributed to the more than 300 years of colonization of the Philippines by Spain and another 40 by the United States. “This is what we call colonial mentality, and that’s just not right. Being a Filipino American means being a change maker. The only way that change can be transformative is if you’re really there, boots in the ground, understanding and stepping in, and making sense out of what needs to be change. I want our kababayans (fellow Filipinos or countrymen) to be more outspoken, to claim our place in front and center. We work hard and we deserve to let our voices be heard.”

She on the other hand does not have a hard time being heard. The change maker in Susana Reyes is a force to be reckoned with. Even more so in the month of October when she represents her cultural community. “I hope Filipinos can see that with my post on the Board, I am speaking not only for them but for our ratepayers for the benefit of LADWP,” she says. “As a commissioner, I am proud to represent, I can make controversial decisions and I’m not afraid of it.” And for Filipino Americans at LADWP and the City of Los Angeles who know her, Commissioner Reyes inspires Pinoy pride and empowerment. Mabuhay ka, Susana at ang lahat ng ating mga kababayan!

# # #

 

 

 




Evelyn Cortez-Davis: A Woman of Substance

By Albert Rodriguez

As a vital member of LADWP management, Evelyn Cortez-Davis, Assistant Director of the Water Operations Division, leads the team that safely treats, stores, and conveys water to the 4 million residents of Los Angeles. She has worked her way up through the ranks since joining the Department in 1992 as a civil engineer, taking on roles with ever increasing responsibility. One thing that has become clear about Evelyn: as she promotes, her desire to give back also increases. At any given time you will find Evelyn mentoring, speaking at career fairs, representing women in S.T.E.M. and encouraging today’s youth, especially girls to follow in her footsteps. In the following interview, Evelyn talks about what drives her success and her passion to give back.

Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to choose your career field. What interested you the most and why did you choose LADWP?

I chose to be a civil engineer because I want to change the world! I studied engineering at UCLA with a focus on water resources and environmental engineering. With this degree, I knew I could go anywhere in the world and be able to contribute to the safe delivery of clean water to people and to protect our environment. As a basic need, water unites all human beings on Earth and this was the best kind of motivation for me. I was ecstatic to come to LADWP to apply my learning right here, serving the city where most of my family lives.

What have been some of the major career highlights/projects for you while working at the Department?

Since joining LADWP in 1992, I have worked in pipeline design and construction, environmental compliance, water quality, recycled water, water rights, and groundwater cleanup. As Assistant Director of Water Operations, I lead a team that safely treats, stores, and conveys water to the 4 million residents of Los Angeles.

In previous roles, I had the opportunity to manage the Department’s $500-million remediation strategy to clean up the San Fernando Groundwater Basin and grant applications totaling over $250 million. I have been privileged to represent Los Angeles on the Colorado River Board of California and on the Board of Trustees for Water Reuse California. One of the roles I have enjoyed the most is as a member and alumnus of the LADWP Speakers Bureau which has given me a chance to interact with members of the community and learn first-hand about the impact of our work on families and businesses.

As a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.) and a Board Certified Environmental Engineer (BCEE), what is your view of the role women play in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) fields?

The contributions and innovations of women in all fields of STEM are critically important. Just this year, we have seen history made with Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck winning the 2019 Abel, the “Nobel Prize” in Mathematics, and we will hopefully see NASA’s first planned all-female spacewalk soon.

Women’s voices in STEM are helping bring together diverse ideas to solve today’s complex problems. Right here in Los Angeles, women are leading as researchers, educators, engineers, scientists, technology innovators, and more. The key is to inspire girls to maintain their interest in STEM fields beginning at a young age, through middle school and on into high school, and their college years.

Groups like the Society of Women Engineers, National Girls Collaborative Project, TechnoloChicas, and Million Women Mentors are working to spark the interest and confidence of girls and women to pursue and succeed in STEM careers through mentoring.

What advice do you have for young girls or parents of young girls regarding STEM?

Keep your options open! Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, math was always my toughest subject. I had to put in 10 times the work to get the high grades in math that I was achieving in all my other classes. In fact, my favorite subject (by far) was English, particularly poetry and creative writing. Like many young students do, I mistakenly believed that math must be my best and favorite subject in order to become an engineer. I was wrong! Math is a skill and, like other skills, it can be improved with practice and dedication.

It took the encouragement of Mrs. Anna Cohen, my Chemistry/Biology teacher, to nudge me in the right direction. She saw my potential to excel in STEM and pushed me to participate in science field trips and ultimately to apply to UCLA and launch my career in engineering. I still very much enjoy writing so I have not had to give up that interest. My advice is to keep an open mind and give it your all. You will be thrilled to watch all the doors that will open as a result.

Where do you see the future of women at the Department?

The future is bright! We have an incredible opportunity to become ambassadors for gender equity. Our employees can more closely represent the communities that we serve in all classes and at all levels of our organization. With our Equity Metrics Initiative and the Mayor’s Gender Equity Initiative, LADWP has the chance to lead in this area. Just last year, I was honored to help launch of the Society of Women Engineers Professional Affiliate Group at LADWP to support our talented employees and influence the next generation of engineers and STEM professionals. There is much more to come!




Collette Gaal: Protecting Owens Valley’s Natural Habitat

By Jessica Johnson
Communications, Media and Community Affairs

Maintaining and operating nearly 315,000 acres of mostly undeveloped watershed lands is no small feat, but LADWP’s Water System does just that in the Eastern Sierra where a major portion of Los Angeles’ water supply comes from.

LADWP’s Northern District Water Operations Division has over 250 employees who work and live in Kern, Inyo and Mono counties. Their job: maintaining a number of water supply facilities including, the First and Second Los Angeles Aqueducts, several reservoirs, and hundreds of miles of canals and ditches. Within Water Operations is a dedicated watershed management group, staffed with biologists, botanists, a soil scientist, and other technical and administrative personnel who monitor the Owens Valley watershed ecosystems and the preserve water supplies to the city while protecting water quality, habitat and wildlife.

Recently, we sat down with Watershed Resources Specialist Collette Gaal, who has worked with LADWP for nine of her 25 years in the environmental field. Focusing on LADWP’s water management projects, Gaal has been a part of several enhancement projects including the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project and the Lower Owens River Project.

Collette Gaal with members of the LADWP Northern District Watershed Resources team at Owens Lake. From left: Jeff Nordin, Ron Tucker, Gaal, Jason Morgan and Debbie House. (Photo courtesy of Collette Gaal)


Intake: What inspired you to follow a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

CG: Growing up, I liked biology, hiking, camping and anything to do with being outdoors.

Intake: Tell us more about what you do, and some of your favorite projects you have had the chance to work on.

CG: My job includes fulfilling LADWP’s biological mitigation requirements for exporting water to Los Angeles, obtaining environmental permits for projects, maintaining the Los Angeles Aqueduct waterways and Owens Lake dust control. I also help coordinate the annual Owens Lake Bird Festival, held each April. In addition, I support measuring flow in the creeks high in the mountains. The field trips for this project are interesting because we’re in the beautiful countryside, and you have to travel a rugged four-wheel trip to get to some of these spots.

Intake: What are some of your favorite recreational activities in the Eastern Sierra?

CG: The Eastern Sierra is marvelous for many outdoor activities. Some weekends, it is hard to decide what to do. You can cross-country ski, road- or mountain-bike, kayak, explore historical mining ruins or Native American wikiups (lodges) or view the beautiful wildflowers at many elevations. I have not yet rafted the Owens River, but it is on my list!

Intake: In your opinion, what makes the Owens Valley watershed unique?

CG: The Owens Valley watershed is high desert, adjacent to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Much of the land is owned by the City of Los Angeles and federal agencies (Inyo National Forest) and so the area is lightly populated and relatively undeveloped.  There is abundant wildlife, fascinating geology, and cultural history.  The Paiute have a large presence in the area and carry on traditional activities such as pine nut harvesting. Some of the interesting geology includes volcanic cinder cones, Bishop tuff, consolidated ash, hot springs and the weathered granite formations in the Buttermilks (Sierra Nevada foothills) and Alabama Hills.

Intake: There are a lot of community events in the Owens Valley – what events do you most look forward to each year?

CG: My favorite local event is the Bishop ultra-marathon, a benefit for Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor Program and Inyo County Search and Rescue.  I do the 20-mile fun run (I walk a lot of it!).  It is in the Buttermilks and is a locally supported event. They even have a local caterer who cooks food at the finish line.