Kristin Schoenecker, Sweet Water’s Program Assistant, recently interviewed Laura Herrick, SEWRPC’s Chief Environmental Engineer and one of Sweet Water’s newest board members about her career working in the water resources field as well as about Sweet Water’s future.
As Chief Environmental Engineer at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), Laura Herrick has many responsibilities, but connecting with the communities served by the Commission is one of her most cherished.
Ms. Herrick oversees nine full-time SEWRPC staff: five who have engineering backgrounds and four with a planning/science background. She and her staff are engaged in a variety of projects for the communities they work with, including a regional chloride study, a floodplain mapping project for a portion of the Root River watershed, and a restoration plan for the Oak Creek watershed. Ms. Herrick also works directly with community staff and the public on a variety of environmental concerns.
“I think that’s my favorite part of my job,” Ms. Herrick says of working with the communities and the public. She is able to provide technical advice to people who may not have a background in water resources or engineering. One benefit of the in-depth nature of SEWRPC projects, which often are multi-year, is the satisfaction of promoting understanding of watershed issues. Often she serves a direct resource to the communities and other times as a connector between community members and other professionals who can help answer questions that she cannot.
While Ms. Herrick is currently immersed in the technical aspects of water issues, she has been a lifelong water enthusiast. Growing up, she spent summers outdoors on family land on Big Cedar Lake in Washington County. Growing up in Wauwatosa, she eventually left Wisconsin to get her undergraduate degree at Valparaiso University in Indiana, where she became even more interested in water resources through her civil engineering classes. After earning her Masters degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota, she spent seven years working for a consultant in Minneapolis. She then moved back to Milwaukee and worked another six years in consulting before joining SEWRPC in 2008.
When asked whether being a woman in a field once dominated by men affected her entrance into engineering, Ms. Herrick said she was lucky to have very supportive professors, advisors, and fellow students. She came into the civil engineering field in the 1990s, when she felt the opportunities were wide open for women. And in the years since, Ms. Herrick says that most of the technical meetings she now attends are pretty evenly split between men and women which is great.
“Really, what’s even more impressive to me is not only the gender balance we’re seeing in the environmental field, but the diverse ethnicities as well,” Ms. Herrick says. “There are so many different perspectives at the table now.” Ms. Herrick also mentioned that while being a woman has influenced her work perspective, so have many of her other experiences. She has worked for a land surveyor, a landscape contractor, and taught sailing, skiing and snowboarding to children and adults.
This diverse set of experiences probably made the next question even harder for Ms. Herrick. When asked if she could pick one water quality issue that is the most pressing for southeastern Wisconsin, she had three answers. One was climate change and the trends towards larger precipitation events. Another was the maintenance of our underground infrastructure that is often “out of sight and out of mind” to the public. The last water quality issue was nonpoint source pollution.
On the challenges of addressing nonpoint source pollution, she noted it is both an urban and a rural concern. More work needs to be done to develop viable options that are cost effective and can consistently improve water quality. For example, no till farming has been heavily promoted in Ohio to reduce phosphorus runoff from fields to Lake Erie. But the algal blooms have persisted and dissolved phosphorus levels have not changed. Additional research is now looking at if a once-a-year till may be more beneficial, to distribute phosphorus and the no till organics below the surface of the soil.
Asked about her involvement with Sweet Water, Ms. Herrick said she succeeded her boss, Mike Hahn, on the Sweet Water board as a non-voting advisor in February 2018, so she is still pretty new to the organization. From her fresh perspective, just as Sweet Water’s role in the watershed has grown and changed over the last ten years, it will continue to do so into the future. She felt “Sweet Water may explore working even more closely with industry partners such as We Energies and MillerCoors”, but this work will likely need more definition to realize its potential.
Finally, Ms. Herrick talked about some of her favorite things to do in her free time. Almost everything had to do with water in some form, even the frozen kind.
“We still have the lake property, so in the summers I like to kayak and sail. Then in the winter, my husband and I ski and snowboard.” Ms. Herrick used to be a certified snowboard instructor, but now she’s a volunteer for Southeastern Wisconsin Adaptive Ski Program, or SEWASP, where she teaches adaptive skiing. “I like it because it gets me out of the engineering world for a while and it is really satisfying to teach. It is really easy for able-bodied people to take being outside for granted, so it’s rewarding to be able to appreciate it in a new way and help others enjoy it as well.”