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Houston water project breaking ground — in more than one way

November 30, 2018

Nine-foot-wide pipe — tall enough for WNBA player Tina Thompson to stand in with three basketballs balanced on her head — was recently carted to Houston in 25-foot sections and laid 30 feet below ground near U.S. 59 and Texas 8.

The pipe is the backbone of the Northeast Transmission Water Line, which will bring 365 million gallons of water a day from the Lake Houston reservoir to the city and surrounding counties. The pipeline, nearly 17 miles long, is Houston’s most ambitious water project ever, aimed at reducing the metro area’s reliance on groundwater and providing for a population expected to grow by nearly 50 percent to 10 million by 2040.

It’s historic for other reasons. Four leaders of the project are women.

Engineering is still a profession dominated by men, who make up 86 percent of engineers nationally. Despite increasing numbers in the engineering and other technical fields, it’s still unusual for women to head major projects, which makes it all the more remarkable that four women are overseeing everything from the $450 million pipeline’s engineering and construction to its operation and maintenance, said Kristina Swallow, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“This is something that is a long time coming,” Swallow said, “having more women at the helm, having more women leading projects.”

On a recent Monday afternoon, the four women drove out to view the next thousand-foot, 12-ton section of pipe being readied for installation, a process that entails digging a trench, welding the pipes together and installing valves, manways and manholes before disinfecting the pipe and connecting it to the existing system.

Mackrena Ramos handed out neon vests and hard hats from the back of her SUV. She is the program manager for the engineering company the city selected as its technical adviser for the pipeline, Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam, and makes sure construction stays on budget and on time.

Venus Price is Public Works section lead for the city’s large-diameter pipelines. Yvonne Forrest, the director of Houston Water, is responsible for the operation and maintenance of Houston’s regional water and wastewater systems, and Shannon Rodriguez, managing engineer for the city’s drinking water operations, makes sure water continues to flow with sufficient volume and pressure even while sections of pipeline are turned off for maintenance (she’s known by her colleagues as the Water Wizard).

The four women could continue to work together for years after the new pipeline is completed, overseeing operations and maintenance and eventually making repairs as necessary.

“The whole life cycle of the pipe is just this team,” Rodriguez said.

The careers of the four women capture the progress, albeit slow, that women have made in engineering and other technical professions. As the team has worked to shape the future of Houston’s water, they’ve also witnessed the changes in engineering shift to include more women. When Forrest attended the University of South Carolina in 1989, she was one of two women in her class of 12 chemical engineers. Early in her career, she remembers being asked if she was the new assistant when she worked on-site.

By contrast, when Rodriguez, a Houston native, graduated from Texas Tech University in 2005, she said, women made up roughly half of her class of civil engineers.

The number of female engineers, however, is still low. In 2012, the most recent year for which Census estimates were available, only 16 percent of engineers in the Houston area were women. While many more new graduates are entering the workforce — 37 percent of Rice University’s engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in 2017, for example— fewer women are in higher positions, a phenomenon sometimes known as the leaky pipeline.

“There are a whole set of biases when it comes to hiring and recruiting,” said Yvette Pearson, an associate dean at Rice University’s engineering school. “Sometimes women and people of color are not given the same level of work, the same types of tasks that are going to ready them for the next level of advancement.”

Getting a seat at the table can require insistence. Forrest, the director of Houston Water, recalled when she began attending meetings on pipeline projects. Initially, she hung back by the door as men vied to dominate discussions, talking over other people. Then, she realized that the decisions made around that table affected her operations at Houston Water and began standing next to the table until someone offered her a spot.

“My voice was going to be heard,” she said, “because the consequences were too great for my customers if it was not.”

Now Price, who oversees the Public Works Department’s large diameter pipeline, leads those meetings, and her boss, Carol Ellinger Haddock, became the Public Works’ first female director in January.

Price said she uses her role to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

“We don’t ignore you guys,” Price said.

The paths the women took to their careers in civil engineering were diverse, but they include powerful stories that they hope will will influence younger women in engineering and those who aspire to the profession. Price’s family fled to America during the Iranian Revolution nearly 40 years ago. News reports about droughts and water shortages in major cities such as Los Angeles made her interested in ensuring that large metropolitan areas had enough water.

Ramos moved to Houston from Mexico and first became interested in Houston’s water when her professor at the University of Houston asked her to monitor water quality in the bayous. After starting at the Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam engineering firm in 1999 to intern on large-diameter pipelines, she worked her way up the ranks to become the project’s manager.

“If we speak up more and more, if we tell them what we do and who we are and how we got here — that can impact more people than you’re directly mentoring,” Ramos said. “You don’t know who’s in the room that’s going to hear that story and get inspired.”

At their work site, giant tubes of steel and mortar weighing 600 pounds each lay beside a channel being dug in the ground. Ramos, Price, Forrest and Rodriguez smiled as they surveyed the largest-diameter pipeline in the city. The four women had been working together for years to reach the point where the solution to Houston’s future water needs could soon begin construction.

“To finally be able to go out in the street and see the construction is really special for us,” Price said.

They snapped a quick picture together, then got back to work.

rebecca.schuetz@chron.com

twitter.com/raschuetz

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