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Spotlight: Cari-Michel LaCaille

April 9, 2019 – More than 27 million people consuming water from public water systems rely on TCEQ

 

Cari-Michel LaCaille, director of TCEQ’s Water Supply Division
Cari-Michel LaCaille, director of TCEQ’s Water Supply Division.

If something does not go as well as it should with one of the state’s 7,000 water systems, Cari-Michel LaCaille knows she will hear about it from upset residents and legislators. The stress from that burden can be intense, but it’s a challenge and a responsibility that LaCaille welcomes.

As director of TCEQ’s Water Supply Division, she has a huge responsibility. More than 27 million people consuming water from these systems rely on the diligence and thoroughness of TCEQ to provide adequate oversight.

LaCaille recently took time out of her busy schedule to discuss her job and background:

What kind of training or preparation does someone need to do your job?

In my view, it’s all about being prepared and taking nothing for granted. I think anybody that can keep their eyes and ears open, be responsive, collect and provide accurate information, respond to situational change, and be ready to adjust will do well. It’s also important to stay optimistic, but remain realistic. Knowing how hard everyone works here, a little grit is helpful.

What attracted you to the TCEQ?

Initially, it seemed like a great place for science geeks like me. What got me to stay was realizing how important the work is that we do and the people here. I couldn’t ask for anything better in terms of an organization to work with. I have a great team around me who are highly supportive, very motivational, and give me all the support and resources I need to be successful. There really is a sense of family. 

What led you to do what you’re doing today? 

When I was in my twenties, my dad made me write on a piece of paper a list of five things that would motivate me. One of the things on the list was landing a job I had a passion for. He gently took me aside and told me I should think about wiping that off the list because it was bunk. He told me there were too many competing priorities in life and I should consider taking another approach for career selection. He told me to look for the area that had a need, get the job, dig in, and get really good at it. And slowly, you will develop passion for a field you have expertise in.

I’ve chosen jobs I had no idea if I would like, but I developed passion for each of them because I worked very hard to be good at them.

Since landing this position, water has certainly become more interesting. Before that, I was just like most of the population. I’d turn the tap on or flush the toilet, and that was all I’d associated water with. Now, I realize that water service is not exactly straightforward, and is a 24-hour-a-day undertaking. It takes many highly skilled and dedicated professionals. There is a lot to learn and I am really enjoying myself. Even when I’m visiting somewhere as a tourist, I look at what kind of water supply they have and try to connect with other drinking water administrators. I want to know what I can learn from them. It drives my kids crazy.

Did you have any key mentors who have influenced who you are and what you’re committed to in your work? 

My parents played a huge role in influencing me and still do. They taught me to make the most of any situation and to prefer excellence over perfection. If you work hard, you will perform well, and your outcome will meet standards of excellence. You will be able to take pride in a job well done. They taught me not to get caught up in trying to fabricate the perfect result; I would just end up beating myself up when things don't go just as planned. This helps to take the pressure off so when a bad day inevitably happens it enables me to get up, dust off, and move on.

Cari-Michel LaCaille attending a meeting with the Plans and Technical Review Section Manager Joel Klumpp.
Cari-Michel LaCaille attending a meeting with the Plans and Technical Review Section Manager Joel Klumpp.

Day-to-day operations:

Please describe in layman’s terms the nature of your job and what you do.

The Water Supply Division oversees the production, treatment, delivery, and protection of safe and adequate drinking water and assesses the financial, managerial, and technical capabilities of public water systems. We are also responsible for the general supervision and oversight of water districts.

We evaluate approximately 145,000 analytical results each month for compliance with state and federal drinking water standards. It’s very important that the public has access to information about the quality of their drinking water, so we make the results available within 24-hours of receiving the results on Texas Drinking Water Watch.

We provide financial, managerial, and technical assistance to water systems. Drinking water systems face a wide array of challenges in providing safe, reliable, and affordable drinking water to their customers. Some of the challenges they face can be adapting to new regulatory standards, the need to upgrade or replace aging infrastructure, source water availability and protection issues, natural disasters or other emergencies, operational failures, and increasing budgetary constraints. Because each system has a unique combination of barriers, achieving compliance may require a unique combination of assistance tools. 

The division has a very talented staff that help systems with these challenges on a daily basis. We have the expertise to be able to provide hands-on training to operators about problem solving, water chemistry, process controls, regulatory requirements, and proper plant operation and maintenance. We are also available to assist systems get back online after a natural disaster or other emergency and can help with referrals to potential funding sources.

What is a typical work day like for you? What is the process?

My workdays start with the right intentions. I’ve had plenty of coffee, I’ve prepared an ambitious to-do list the night before, organized the day, and developed a manageable schedule for meetings. But things tend to quickly unravel as unexpected fire drills take over. For me, it’s choosing the right things to work on. You have to ask yourself, “What is the most valuable use of my time right now?” I’m looking to get the tasks done that move us forward. I still want to complete my entire to-do list, but sometimes I have to remember what my deputy [her boss], L’Oreal Stepney, often tells me: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Why is what you do important?

Protection of public health and safety is pretty much at the top of the list.

Insights:

What do you like best about public service?

When it’s done right it can make a real impact on individuals and communities. It’s a great thing to be able to see the impact of the work we do on a larger scale. Being part of a team that ensures safe and reliable water for millions of people is truly amazing. Every day brings new and different challenges. The work is hard, but nothing is more gratifying than knowing you’ve helped somebody solve a problem.

What is the hardest thing about the job?

The hardest part of my job is what also makes it the most attractive and rewarding: tackling problems. We face some really tough issues on a daily basis. There are water systems that have elevated levels of contaminants and need help with treatment and funding, wells collapse, treatment plants fail, flooding and drought, abandoned systems, outbreaks caused by microbial contamination, cross-connection contamination, distribution line breaks, expediting district bond applications to provide residents water and wastewater services—the list goes on and on, but we are here to help get these types of problems solved. When we get a win, there is nothing better. I’m lucky to be working with folks who love what they do, so it’s fun to watch all the light bulbs go off when the problems need solving. That’s what keeps me coming back day after day.

What advice would you give to a new hire in your office?

  1. Feel ownership of what you are doing and be prepared to maintain a high standard of service.
  2. Rather than complain, dive in and accept a challenge and dedicate your time and energy to a solution. Move forward instead of dwelling on what went wrong.
  3. Don’t forget to laugh—it’s usually what will get you and your team through tough times.

What’s the biggest misconception you feel people have about your job, your division, or the agency?

I think that people would value state government just a little more if they knew how dedicated to our work we are. Our agency has a very gifted group of interpersonally-skilled, intelligent, and committed employees, which is a very powerful asset in any organization.

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All photos TCEQ.