Women in Water: Jamila Johnson

26 October 2021
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This article was originally published by Storm Water Solutions.


Jamila Johnson, managing director for Water Resources in Walter P Moore’s Houston office, talks about her nearly 30-year career in the public works sector and beyond.

As an extension of the SWS Women in Water coverage from the October print issue, Jamila Johnson, managing director for Water Resources in Walter P Moore’s Houston office, talks with SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns about her career, being a woman in the industry and her goals. Johnson also shares advice for those just joining in the water industry.

Can you tell me about your career and how you got into this industry?

That’s a long story but kind of a direct one. My start in the industry goes back to my choice of career. When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to focus my talents on learning, to solve problems and improve the quality of life of people who lived in urban areas like me. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and for me, civil engineering, engineering for people, was just a natural fit. When I think about the career of civil engineering – that area now and then – it’s really kind of the foundation of a good quality of life. Of course, we are really focusing on water, clean water, appropriately handled wastewater and well-managed storm water, but that also includes reliable transportation systems and awesome structures that provide shelter and of course, a well stewarded environment.

When it was time for me to pick a school, I went and studied civil engineering at Washington University and got to start my career right here in Houston, Texas. I spent the first part of my career developing a really diverse engineering experience, working on projects from oil and gas to land development, but I really hit my stride in my career, when I had the opportunity to serve as the city of Houston’s floodplain manager for about nine years. Then after that I worked for Houston public works as infrastructure policy manager, and this really gave me the chance to help shape the direction of floodplain management and infrastructure policy and projects.

I’m really proud of that, but I really had this strong desire to adjust to some of these awesome projects we conceived of at Houston public works. We’re getting started to really be part of making them a reality to get more hands on and bringing those projects to fruition. So here I am at Walter P Moore leading up water resources engineering in Houston. And I really can’t wait to let that rubber hit the road on these projects.

It sounds like this is a little bit of a newer role for you outside of public works. So what are you looking forward to about that change? Is it having that more hands-on feel?

I worked as a consulting engineer at the beginning of my career too, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to partner with my clients to help them achieve their goals. Getting the opportunity to work with Walter P Moore and water resources is amazing because there’s so much work to be done for these public projects that are really going to help improve resilience and equity in Houston and in other communities like Houston. So I’m really excited to be more hands-on and to make those projects happen.

Looking at your overall career so far, what have been some of the biggest challenges that you face and how have those helped shape you as a professional in this industry?

Well, you know, it seems like there’s nothing but challenges, but that’s really the point. I want to be able to use my talents and skills to solve problems. So in Houston, we’ve got a couple of approaches. We’ve got problems, but those are opportunities. Houston has developed in an environment where we build first and kind of regulate later with about 80% of the city’s infrastructure and structures even being built before we had any modern floodplain management or storm water management. That’s something that a lot of people don’t understand about our area. And so, considering that and considering just the challenges that we face with climate change, with aging infrastructure, with historic disinvestment, and some of our socially vulnerable communities, it’s time to figure out the way to be really judicious with available resources, to bring the biggest bang for the buck to our clients, and ultimately, the people in the communities that our projects are intended to serve.

That’s kind of the landscape of challenges that we face, and the solutions are, of course, we’re going to work on projects that help mitigate the potential for flooding. We also want to find ways to do that that are innovative and that pay close attention to the needs of the community so that we can find co-benefits. We want to find ways of working on projects that might engage non-traditional partners and funding mechanisms for projects. We want to find ways to make sure that we’re not leaving anyone behind, so that we’re injecting equity and trying to prioritize projects that serve our socially vulnerable communities. Any opportunity to get these things done really needs to be a part of our project, so that we’re kind of squeezing everything we can out of every bit of investment that our clients are making.

Equally we’re faced with problems of climate change and growing population and aging infrastructure that need to be addressed, and how do you prioritize that and find ways that really bring the biggest benefits to communities, and so that’s what the challenge is all about. With everything I’ve learned and with seeing the devastation that not paying attention to these things can bring, makes me really motivated to find ways to get that done, to judiciously and surgically use our resources to help solve problems. That’s going to bring the biggest benefit to the communities we serve and that’s going to make Walter P Moore look good and make our clients look good.

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