This All-Female Team Is Reshaping Water Management

As part of an all-female water management team, interim chief technical officer, Irazema Rojas, is helping reshape the look of El Paso Water. The team, and Rojas, stand out in an industry in which fewer than 1 in 5 employees are women, according to a 2020 study by World Bank.

Located at an international border with Mexico, El Paso, Texas, is a desert city well-known for reusing its treated water. Rojas is now executing the system's largest capital program, expanding El Paso Water facilities and treatment plants.

She recently talked with us about why she was drawn to water engineering and management, provided details about the El Paso water reclamation project, and how she advises water systems to hire inclusively.

What drew you to water engineering and management?

Growing up in the Sonoran Desert near Yuma, Arizona, my parents instilled in us the notion that we had to conserve water—because if we didn't, we'd never get it back. With my upbringing, I always wanted to do things to benefit the community, and I appreciated water work's environmental side. Everything we do in water management here in the Chihuahuan Desert is for the community's well-being—and I like that.

How did you get into water work?

I was drawn to civil engineering for the reasons I mentioned before—making positive changes in the local community. During my undergraduate studies, I worked internships, including one funded by the Texas Department of Transportation related to the water and water lines of El Paso colonias (neighborhoods). Before graduation, I also worked in Americorps' Wellhead Protection Program, studying wells in El Paso. In my senior year, I attended a university networking event and gained contacts that helped me obtain an internship at El Paso Water. After graduation, I was given the opportunity to apply for a full-time role. I was hired in 1997 and have been with the system ever since.

How would you advise municipal water systems and other water systems to encourage, find, and hire diverse candidates?

I think both diversity and inclusivity are happening in water systems, but I believe it remains important for women and others to be visible role models. I still get calls sometimes asking for Mr. But I'm like no, it's Miss/Ms. Ours is a very well-balanced engineering department; we're proud to be diverse and very inclusive. But we like to get out the word about water jobs at career fairs, all-girls schools, and other forums.

I've also been visible as a manager doing outreach in El Paso and across the border in Mexico. Our work there directly impacted the well-being of communities. For instance, the water system in Juarez (directly across the border from El Paso) complies with all our standards, including those for water reclamation.

And in February this year for Engineers Week, we organized meet-and-greets so the 800-plus employees at El Paso Water could get to know its engineers.

El Paso Water has recycled treated water since 1963, and you supply golf courses, city parks, school grounds, apartment grounds, construction, and industrial sites with over 5.83 million gallons of reclaimed water per day. How do you explain water recycling to the public?

I say we're making more efficient use of our water instead of discarding it, cleaning it to standards that are up to grade for specific uses such as for agriculture, landscaping and parks, and industrial processes.

As part of a new capital campaign that's been approved, we'll build an advanced water purification facility. It will bring water into a more advanced treatment process, so we can drink reclaimed water.

All the water we use existed in this world in previous lives at previous times; we need to embrace that. It's the way of the future.

If we talk with kids about reclaiming treated water and they say "Ew," I ask them how they think people survive in space. Astronauts recycle their sweat and urine to produce drinking water. If they can do it, why can't we?

What are you working on now?

Executing our largest capital campaign ever to update our wastewater treatment plant and expand facilities. El Paso is no longer a small city; it's a multiplex, and we need to make very big changes. I'm happy management has entrusted me with this opportunity to improve the system.

Why do you do your job?

I live in this community and city, this is where family is and where future generations likely will continue to live. I love what I do and having the opportunity to make positive changes. It makes me feel good that they will say later: "Great things happened under her watch."

Read These Next

Catherine Arnold

An independent writer telling human stories in science, health, and other areas, Catherine Arnold has written articles for the Washington Post, Science Careers, Bicycling, and NBC Health. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.