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  • Flood Control’s pioneering leader steps down

    Jan 06, 2023 | Read More News
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    Suzanne Shields was driving her beige Volkswagen bug to work, shocked at what she saw.

    It was Monday, Oct. 3, 1983. A tropical storm had blown through Tucson over the weekend, dumping more than four inches of rain on the already-soaked desert basin, saturated from late-season monsoon rains that had fallen days before.

    What Shields was seeing on that morning drive were the effects of the most consequential weather event in Pima County’s history, one that would shape her career in public service.

    “I remember driving through the interchange at I-10 and Speedway and seeing a high-water mark,” said Shields, holding her hand up to show the height of mud that had accumulated on the concrete walls of the underpass. “It never occurred to me that it would ever get that deep.”

    Shields, at that time, had been working for the Pima County Flood Control District for about five years. The District was barely older than that. She was hired as its first hydrologist in 1979, the year after it was formed.

    Last month, some 44 years onward, Shields stepped down as the Director and Chief Engineer of Pima County’s Regional Flood Control District after serving in the top job since 2005. She remains employed as a part-time project manager.

    Shields, who is also a registered civil engineer, held posts elsewhere in the County prior to managing the District, including an eight-year stint running the county’s Solid Waste Department. But her return to Flood Control might as well have been foretold.

    The “Great Flood” of 1983, causing deaths, mass evacuations and hundreds of millions in damages in Southern Arizona, ushered in a new era of floodplain management in Pima County, one of high stakes and major engineering and policy challenges. It would give rise to one of the County’s most innovative and respected departments. Shields, who would ultimately become the District’s longest-standing leader, had been there from its infancy and through its defining moment in 1983.

    Although she says she is ready to step aside as director, she is also quick to correct anyone who says she’s actually retiring.

    Stepping up in a male-dominated field

    A graduate of Canyon Del Oro High School, Shields traces her interest in hydrology to her youth. She credits an uncle who was in the drilling business, and a friend whose father worked for the United States Geological Survey, with sparking her interest in the field.

    Hydrology was not her initial career choice. She had wanted to be a teacher, and spent a year teaching junior high home economics, which she says was “enough time to learn that it was not for me” before returning to the University of Arizona to study in its Hydrology and Water Resources Department.

    The department, established in 1966, was the first in the nation of its kind. Among Shields’ professors was its founder, Dr. John Harshbarger, a legendary figure in the field who played a key role in establishing hydrology as its own area of academic specialization.

    Shields chuckles dismissively when asked about sexism in the academic and professional cultures of hydrology and civil engineering. Both were dominated by men when she entered the fields in the 1970s, and both — although to a lesser degree — still are.

    She pauses before speaking frankly to the reality of life in those times.

    “At the university, in the Hydrology Department, they wouldn’t let women drive the vehicles,” she said. “They said our legs were too short.”

    It did not stop there.

    “I remember, after I started working for the County, going to ADOT meetings in Phoenix,” she said. “We would be gathered in some large conference room on one of the building’s upper floors. There were bathrooms outside the conference room, but they were only for men. There weren’t any bathrooms for women on that floor. I would have to take the elevator down to the basement to find a women’s room.”

    Things were better at Pima County. Shields said her first bosses, Transportation Director Chuck Huckelberry and Deputy Transportation Director John Bernal, treated her like any other engineer and made her feel welcome.

    Shields had another thing in common with former County Administrator Huckelberry and former Deputy County Administrator Bernal, besides being a civil engineer: all are native Tucsonans.

    “In those years, female engineers were somewhat rare,” said Bernal. “She had an uphill climb from the beginning. Maybe it was just her personality, but she had no trouble taking care of herself and coping with those kinds of challenges.”

    Huckelberry added: “She was just an excellent engineer. Suzanne was a very good technical manager and District employee.”

    The big flood that changed everything

    “We never expected all the river systems to flood at the same time,” said Shields, reflecting on 1983. “Engineers in the 1970s saw watersheds separately. They had 50 years of data, so they could calculate the 100-year discharge of the Pantano, or the Rillito, or the Santa Cruz. But no one anticipated all of them flowing at those rates, all at the same time.”

    The Flood Control District was then part of the Transportation Department, which was managed by Huckelberry. He said the 1983 flood caught everyone by surprise, including him.

    “Historically, if you look at the kind of floods that have happened on the river systems in the county, they only happened on one river at a time. It might rain heavily on the east side and the Rillito would run, but there would be very little water in the Santa Cruz,” said Huckelberry. “But in that event, it rained everywhere. And it rained a lot.”

    The results of the 1983 flood were catastrophic. Nine people died and another 221 were reported injured in and around Tucson. More than 400 were rescued or evacuated. More than 150 homes were destroyed. Overall flood damage was estimated at $226.5 million.

    In examining the aftermath, Shields and her colleagues made a helpful discovery: an early investment the district had made in soil cement bank protection near the confluence of the Santa Cruz and Rillito rivers had survived the floods and successfully prevented their banks from eroding, stopping an estimated $15 to $20 million in damage to nearby private property.

    They had found the key to preventing another 1983.

    In the following years, an aggressive soil cement program involving federal relief funds and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hardened the banks of the Rillito River and the Tanque Verde Creek, so that the next big flood wouldn’t cause further erosion.

    That next big flood came a decade later.

    In January 1993, three days of heavy rain soaked the Tucson area, followed in the next week by a big storm that dumped about an inch and a half on the city in just a few hours. The Rillito raged — in some places at 100-year levels. But its newly cemented banks held.

    No one died, no homes were lost, and property damage was minimal.

    Exploring opportunities, breaking glass ceilings

    In 1985, Shields left her job with the District but remained in Tucson, doing civil and environmental engineering work in the private sector.

    But when the County began searching for a director for its Planning and Development Services department in early 1993, Shields added her name to the otherwise all-male applicant pool.

    She was well-qualified, knew her way around County government, and was already familiar with its zoning and building codes — especially Pima County’s unique floodplain ordinance, which she knew better than anyone. She also was no stranger to the familiar tensions of that department — a gatekeeper to land developers and anyone else who needed a county permit.       

    Shields ended up being one of three finalists, but the Board of Supervisors selected the department’s interim director, James Altenstadter.

    An opportunity to head a County department opened up in 1993 in Solid Waste, which oversaw county landfills. Shields’ background in hydrology gave her a leg up in competing for the job, which came with the responsibility of protecting local aquifers. Groundwater contamination was a sensitive issue in Tucson, where industrial and municipal plaintiffs have paid more than $130 million to date in legal settlements over illnesses alleged to have been caused by industrial solvents dumped in the 1950s.

    Shields, the lone female finalist, got the job.

    Returning to Flood Control and rising to the top

    Shields returned to Pima County amid a turbulent period for its administration. Shields rode out the storm with the end seeing Huckelberry, who had hired her in ’78, become County Administrator. Bernal, who spent time serving in the Clinton Administration, was appointed Deputy County Administrator for Public Works by Huckelberry in 2000. Among the County functions he would supervise: flood control.

    The following year, Shields left her job at Solid Waste to become deputy director of what was then still called the Department of Transportation and Flood Control District, where she served under director Kurt Weinrich.

    Four years later, Bernal decided it was time for Flood Control to become its own department.

    “Given the continuing inquiries from the region’s flood control participants, particularly the City of Tucson,” he proposed in a December 2004 memo to Huckelberry, “I believe there is a need to strongly emphasize the ‘regional’ nature of our flood control responsibilities.”

    As for who would lead the new department, the choice was obvious.

    Two days later, Huckelberry affirmed Bernal’s proposal in a subsequent memo to the Board. Effective Jan. 1, 2005, the Pima County Regional Flood Control District became its own department, led by Shields as director and chief engineer.

    The Loop is born

    In his preamble to a booklet published by the County commemorating the District’s 40th anniversary, Huckelberry described the District as “hard to see and rarely noticed because it works so well.” He was speaking to the District’s responsibility to protect life and property, at which it has quietly amassed an excellent record of success in post-1983 flood events.

    But not all of the District’s successes have been low-profile.

    Pima County’s internationally acclaimed system of shared-use paths and linear parks, originally called “The Loop,” and now named “The Chuck Huckelberry Loop” for its longtime champion, was a figurative and literal outgrowth of the District’s investments in bank protection.

    Shields and Huckelberry both recall seeing people walking and riding bicycles along the flat concrete tops of the Rillito’s newly soil-cemented banks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This, according to Shields, was an impetus to begin including “river parks” as recreational amenities when planning future flood control infrastructure.

    “There had been very little investment in public recreation at the time, especially on the north side,” she said, noting that the idea of an actual loop around Tucson, consisting of parks and interconnected trails along major washes, did not materialize until many years later.

    “I mean, this was like 35 years of work,” she said. “But finally, in about 2013 or 2012, Chuck and I looked around and we’re going ‘we’re almost there. So, let’s just do it.’”

    The Loop became “a real loop” in 2018, when the County completed the section connecting the Rillito to the Pantano Wash.

    Reflecting on her role in what she describes as “getting The Loop done,” Shields said, “It’s something that makes this community really unique. I think a lot of people would have gone crazy with COVID had they not had some place like that to exercise.”

    The work never ends

    In the two decades since Shields took charge of the district, its mission, vision, and goals have changed little. But its accomplishments have been voluminous.

    In April 2022, the District received a long-sought upgrade from FEMA to its rating under the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System (CRS), bumping Pima County from Class 5 to Class 3. The ratings determine how much residents pay for flood insurance. The upgrade will save residents 35 percent on premiums — an estimated $1.6 million per year.

    Shields said the new rating “validates the many years of hard work and taxpayers’ investments in flood control infrastructure and programs since the District joined the CRS in 1991.”

    Those investments included major drainage detention projects like the Kino Environmental Restoration Project, and the Arroyo Chico Multi-Use Project, both of which also included habitat restoration and public recreation components.

    They also include the Paseo de las Iglesias Project, which, in addition to creating a new river park along The Loop, restored the habitat of a declining owl species, and won a national award.

    The District’s collection of floodplain studies, reports, and other technical documents has become vast, and the expertise of its team is an increasingly valuable resource to stakeholders inside and out of the County organization.

    Bernal, who retired from the County in December 2016, recalls being impressed that consulting engineers the District had worked with continue to reach out to District staff for information and advice.

    Nancy Cole, an architect who managed the County’s Capital Program Office for the entirety of Shields’ tenure as Flood Control director, said Shields set up her department with the long-term future in mind. Cole also praised Shields’ mentorship — to staff generally, to women especially, and to her personally.

    “The most important thing you can understand about Suzanne is that it’s good to be on her good side,” Cole said with a laugh. “She has been there for so many people. I have done a lot of projects that have touched many different areas within Pima County, and she has always been there when I needed information or advice.”

    Shields’ current boss – Deputy County Administrator Carmine DeBonis – echoed those comments on Shields’ long tenure.

    “Suzanne’s contributions to Pima County and its residents have been invaluable,” DeBonis said. “She has been a stalwart advocate for holistic floodplain management incorporating community safety, public recreation and environmental stewardship. Suzanne’s strong leadership and dedicated mentoring of Flood Control District staff has placed us at the forefront of national public sector floodplain management agencies and has positioned us for sustained success.”     

    Retirement awaits — eventually

    Shields says she intends to retire, but not just yet. She is overseeing “a couple of projects” that she intends to see through to completion, without elaborating on when that might be.

    What does retirement hold in store?

    “I don’t know. That’s the other reason I’m going to part-time,” she said, cracking a wry smile. “I’ll need that time to figure out what to do next.”