Principal engineer and vice president, Stantec
In the Capital Region, water determines destinies. The 10-county area is both plagued by drought and one of the country’s most at-risk regions for catastrophic flooding. The physical existence of Sacramento and surrounding cities and the viability of the region’s heavily irrigated agriculture depend on water resources engineers like Mary Paasch.
“Water really fuels California’s overall economy,” says Paasch, a principal engineer and vice president at Stantec, an engineering services company. She became aware of the drama of water in the state while growing up on a ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where she held leadership roles in 4-H and the National FFA Organization (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America) throughout her childhood. Later, she studied agricultural engineering at Cal Poly, Texas A&M University, and the University of Padua in Italy. Such a pedigree usually leads to a prominent career in agriculture, but “coming out of school, I really knew I wanted to be focused on water … and the nexus between the urban, the agricultural and the environmental,” she says.
“One of the keys to success is to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. … Put yourself in positions that can allow you to do that.”
In 1998, Paasch joined the consulting group MWH Global (now a subsidiary of Stantec), whose clients include government agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. First as a junior engineer and later in leadership roles, she helped shape some of the projects that define California’s landscape and water supply: modifications to Folsom and Shasta dams, ecosystem restorations at the San Joaquin River and Truckee Meadows, planned modifications to the Delta Cross Channel gates, and others.
Early in her career, Paasch often found herself the only woman engineer in the room; at Cal Poly, for example, she remembers being one of three women in a cohort of about 100. She is determined to use her current position to open the door for those who come behind her. “One of the pieces I most enjoy is aligning the right individuals with opportunities … and to watch folks grow into those roles,” she says. A number of the women she mentored have moved into influential roles in policy and engineering in California and beyond, including in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Paasch also provides mentorship to youth starting out in agriculture, a world she never really left behind. She served as vice chair of the board of the 52nd District Agricultural Association, the presenter of the Sacramento County Fair, and sponsors prizes for young exhibitors at the Nevada County Fair. She still raises Suffolk sheep — a sturdy, black-and-white breed from England’s eastern coast — at her family’s ranch in Nevada County and shows them at fairs every year (except 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic). Her statuesque sheep routinely take home champion titles.
She credits her success in both dams and rams to a genuine love for the work. “I believe anyone can be successful at whatever they choose to do in life if they’re passionate about the topics they’re working on or the areas they’re working within,” she says.
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Melissa Brown has been a professor at McGeorge School of Law since 2008 and director of its legal clinics since 2013.
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LaKenya Jordan is the executive director of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, a state government office that focuses on initiatives and programs that promote and establish equity for women and girls statewide.