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Drinking Water Is a Lifelong Passion for DEQ’s Marie Owens

By Christine Osborne

Marie Owens is the new director of the Division of Drinking Water at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. She brings great experience and enthusiasm to DEQ, along with a commitment to continue the legacy of collaboration between regulators, water professionals, and the public to ensure safe and reliable drinking water throughout Utah. We sat down with her for an interview last week.
Marie Owen at the Jordan River Water Conservancy District Conservation Gardens. The Conservancy District's drinking water treatment plant ensures residents receive safe drinking water.

How did you become interested in engineering?

I was good at math and science in high school, so a teacher encouraged me to pursue engineering. Utah State University (USU) has a great STEM (scientific, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program, so I enrolled there. When I took the engineering aptitude test, I bombed it. The counselors at Utah State gently suggested that I consider going into something other than engineering. My response? “I AM going into engineering.” It was the driver I needed. Just because I didn’t know the information at first didn’t mean I couldn’t — or wouldn’t — learn it. Not only did I learn it, but I learned to love it.

Tell us a little more about college.

My first major at Utah State was electrical engineering, but I found studying the movement of tiny electrons too abstract, so I checked into the then-brand-new discipline, environmental engineering. In fact, there were only three or four environmental engineering programs in the country at that time, and USU had just finished going through the accreditation process. As an environmental engineering student, I studied air quality, water quality, wastewater, hazardous waste, and natural systems. Wastewater and drinking water were paired together, which may seem counterintuitive at DEQ, but it’s all about “water in, water out,” and both types of water are treated. I soon discovered I was passionate about protecting drinking water, so that became my focus.

Marie Owens in protective gear to check out a drinking water system.

Just another typical day at Metro.

What did you do after you graduated?

After I graduated from Utah State, I started what was supposed to be a three-year position with the Metropolitan Water District of Sandy to collect water data. A 1996 Environmental Protection Agency rule called the Information Collection Rule required water systems to collect, analyze and submit data for EPA to use in developing rules for the next decade. Water systems collect this much data all the time now, but it was a very large undertaking back in the day, and I was hired to specifically handle this requirement for the three-year mandate. Three years eventually turned into ten!

You mentioned that you had a great mentor at Metro. What did you learn from him?

Yes, I had the good fortune to work with John Carman, who took the time to teach me about what it meant to be steward of public health. Carman valued the individual and taught me that everyone who works at a public water system, from the janitor to the general manager, has a critical role in ensuring our drinking water is clean and safe. Everybody contributes to the end product, and all of us are necessary.

What was it like being a woman during a time when engineering was a predominantly male profession?

Again, I have to give Carman a lot of credit for making my introduction into the world of drinking water a positive experience. He didn’t hire me because I was a woman, but he didn’t shy away from it either. I never felt like my gender opened — or closed — any doors for me. There were, of course, times when I would get asked for my opinion just to have a “woman’s perspective”, which is patronizing. But overall, I have had a wonderful career full of amazing people who just want to do the right thing for drinking water.

You’ve been in the public sector your entire career. What have you observed about the people who choose to work in the public rather than the private sector?

I’m pretty much ready to try anything, including water tunnels

People don’t go into public service for the prestige, they do it because they can and want to do something that makes a difference. I believe it’s important that our Division of Drinking Water (DDW) staff feel valued for all the great work they’re doing. Utah has over 1000 drinking-water systems, and DDW supports them all so every resident can count on safe, clean drinking water when they turn on their tap. The folks here at DDW pay constant attention to our drinking water so residents have the privilege of forgetting about it.

Tell us a little about “Utah Women of Water,” the organization you helped get started.

I had had several conversations over the years about creating a forum for women with careers in the water industry to learn from and support each other. Christina Osborn, the current president, got it off the ground four years ago, but I’ve been involved from the beginning. Our mission is “Engage, Empower, and Educate.” I think it’s really important for women to network with their peers, meet other women who can serve as mentors, and exchange ideas and information about this fast-changing industry. Our current membership includes scientists, technicians, teachers, engineers, and students. I enjoy mentoring, and Women of Water gives me the opportunity to share my knowledge and experience with other women in the field. Each of us can bring new perspectives to the industry.

 Anything else you’d like to add?

I absolutely love Utah! Our urban, rural, and agricultural communities, coupled with our amazing recreational opportunities, make this a terrific place to live. I grew up in Tremonton on a dry farm — meaning no irrigation, so I learned about the importance of water from a young age. I have a passion for drinking water. I’m proud of all the people at DDW who put in so much effort to ensure that people always have safe water to drink. We are committed to protecting the drinking water throughout the state of Utah, and I am excited to be part of this great team. Utah Rocks!

If you want to learn more about all the great things happening in the Division of Drinking Water, check out our webpage or our annual Open Line newsletter filled with need-to-know information about all things Division of Drinking Water.

I was born and raised in Tremonton, Utah into a family of eight. My father was a wheat farmer, and I grew up wild and free in the dirt and have maintained that sense of adventure ever since. I love exploring the backcountry of this beautiful state as well as the cultural richness throughout the country. A rainy day on the farm meant that no one could work, so I soon developed a love of storms. There is nothing more beautiful to me than storm clouds against Utah’s mountains or red rock.

 I was valedictorian of my graduating class at Bear River High School and attended Utah State University where I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Engineering. During that time, I worked at the Water Research Laboratory in Logan, which led to an internship with the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy, which led to an offer to work full-time for Metro as a Process Engineer. I worked on the Information Collection Rule, a Solids Residual Management Study, pilot testing and design of the Point of the Mountain Water Treatment Plant, source water protection, and the Salt Lake Aqueduct Title Transfer. From there, I moved to Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District as their Water Quality Division Manager. At Jordan Valley, I continued to add to my surface water treatment skills with distribution, groundwater, and laboratory analysis while continuing to actively work on source protection and collaboration groups. It was at Jordan Valley that realized how much I love working with people and mentoring new professionals.

 Somewhere along the way I managed to find a wonderful husband who has been willing to put up with my quirkiness and we have four amazing kids. They are what I am really proud of in my life, and they keep me grounded and humble. They are also my adventure buddies.

 I am so excited to take on the role Director for the Division of Drinking Water. I truly believe that the drinking water industry is filled with passionate people who care about doing the right thing for the right reason. I love everything about water and love interacting with the people who share my passion.