Kavita Heyn, a native of Portland, Oregon, has multiple reasons for tackling climate change. First, she reads the science. Second, she works for a large municipal water utility that’s concerned about how climate change will affect its customers’ water. And third, climate change is messing with her weekends.
“Like many Northwesterners, I’m really passionate about spending my free time out of doors,” says Heyn. “And I worry just on a personal level about not having a good ski season. I worry about rafting seasons. I worry about wildfires, and just how the natural resources are going to be affected by changing conditions.”
Heyn is the Climate Science & Sustainability Coordinator for the Portland Water Bureau, which supplies water to over 950,000 Portland-area residents. Her responsibility is hefty, one she doesn’t take lightly. Nor does the water bureau. That’s why they decided to take a proactive stance on climate change.
To do that, they needed to learn how climate change could affect their watershed, the famed Bull Run. So they turned to CIRC and to PUMA (Piloting Utility Modeling Applications), a project run by a coalition of 10 of the nation’s largest water providers called the Water Utility Climate Alliance. PUMA’s goal is to understand how best to apply climate science in guiding water providers as they adapt to changes and uncertainties in the decades ahead. (See “PUMA Helps Water Utilities Innovate and Adapt” in this month’s CIRCulator.) The Portland Water Bureau and Seattle Public Utilities were among the four participating utilities, both agencies having worked closely with CIRC hydrologists and climate researchers to develop in-house modeling capacities for their watersheds. Heyn was the point person in Portland; a task she says required frank communication.
“This project has been very collaborative,”says Heyn. “One of the things we have learned is we can’t assume the climate scientists — or even the hydrologic modelers — know how a water utility operates. They know their science, but we are very specific in how we run our system.”
Heyn describes her role as that of a “translator”, something she is uniquely qualified to do. Her undergraduate work was in anthropology, an interest she acquired in childhood while trotting the globe with parents who worked for the United Nations. Anthropology led her to natural resources and then to climate change research. With two master’s degrees, one in environmental science and the other in environmental management, she first worked in the environmental nonprofit sector. Three years ago, she landed at the water bureau.
Heyn says climate change is altering the rules for how utilities like hers need to think about the services they provide. She sees PUMA’s collaborative efforts as a way out of an operating “rut.”
“We have to think dynamically,” she says. “We can’t be stationary. We have to deal with uncertainty in our future under climate change.”
You can read more about Heyn’s efforts on the Portland Water Bureau’s blog.
Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer.