We are screen to screen – the 21st century twist on face-to-face interviews.
Truth time: What led this UNLV graduate all the way up to a post requiring an appointment by the president of the United States and a confirmation by the Senate?
That’s a no-brainer, she said.
Mermaids. Of course.
“I had a – what do they call it in the movies? – a ‘meet cute’ story with Reclamation,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, now the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“Meet cute” began in her childhood when her Air Force dad — transferring from Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin, Texas, to Nellis Air Force Base — drove their family to their new Nevada life.
Her dad, weary after four days in the car with two kids under age 10, stopped at a lookout point. “It was a perfect frame of Hoover, the white concrete structure in the Black Canyon. You’re like, ‘What is that?’ My dad said, ‘That’s Hoover Dam. It’s built by engineers, and mermaids live behind Hoover Dam.’”
Public housing for scaly dorsal-finned females? Did she swallow this fish tale? “Hook, line, and sinker – that was my first impression of this organization, how they made it possible for mermaids to live in the continental United States.”
A Champion in the Nation’s Capital
Strangely, that didn’t come up in Touton’s nomination hearing before Congress to be bureau commissioner – a post she assumed in December 2021 after career-building stints in the Department of the Interior and as policy advisor for House and Senate natural resources and infrastructure committees.
She’s now America’s No. 1 warrior for water issues and against the threat of drought. Yet she impressed in other ways.
“Sometimes professors get too much credit for what students are,” said Jacimaria Batista, a professor in the UNLV department of civil and environmental engineering and construction, and one of Touton’s teachers/advisors/admirers.
“When she was being questioned by all the representatives on TV (for her confirmation), she spoke about the children on the Indian reservations who have no water – she almost teared up,” Batista said. “She comes from the Philippines; she knows what it is to be poor. She has a big heart in addition to being very smart. Those are the students who go farther. It’s not about ambition or money; it’s having that passion. The water issue now for poor communities is huge. And I’m not worried because Camille is there.”
Such confidence is seconded by another sizable academic influence, Tom Piechota, who also mentored Touton at UNLV. “I watched her nomination hearing and they can be very political,” said Piechota, a former UNLV vice president for research and now on the faculty at Chapman University.
“Hers was not political. She got bipartisan support for her nomination. People really saw her as just very competent and the right person for a position like that, which speaks to how she approaches the position and her ethics and integrity.”
Yes, she’s a D.C., power player. No, she doesn’t act like it. Her demeanor is one of manners and approachability, a refreshing combo for a politico in 2022 America. It doesn’t come across as strategic. It comes across as innate.
“She’s such a small woman, but you see her eyes, she’s so smart and excited about everything,” Batista said. “And she’s considerate of people. When she came to my lab, she would be in the hall, talking to the janitors at night. She considers everyone.”
Today, she commands a federal agency under the Department of the Interior, leading a workforce of 5,400-plus employees and overseeing the disbursement of a $1.5 billion annual budget. All that bureaucratic firepower addresses water needs and the competing uses of water and fuels initiatives to aid Western states, Native American tribes, and others.
And oh, how that last part weighs on the Silver State and our regional neighbors.
“The option of not doing anything is not an option at all,” said Touton of her biggest quandary: water shortage on the Colorado River, the reduced flow of which threatens seven Western states.
Southern Nevada receives 90 percent of its water supply from the river, and alarm bells are ringing regarding multistate water policies, cooperative projects, and projections about future water availability.
“One of the challenges we had last year was that the hydrology was terrible,” Touton said. “Lake Mead and Lake Powell were at the lowest since filling (in 1935). I think westerners are more in tune because it’s just a part of the landscape that we live in. You can’t live in Las Vegas and not know what the bathtub ring looks like at Lake Mead.”
From UNLV to Federal Corridors
Tackling an issue critical to a vast swath of America is the latest highlight in a life’s journey that began in the Philippines, where she was born in Quezon City.
She shuttled between military bases with her dad before settling in Nevada, which she claims as her true home. (She is a naturalized U.S. citizen.) After she graduated from Bishop Gorman High School, UNLV welcomed her into what she considers a golden period of her life.
“I’m really proud to be a Rebel,” Touton said. By staying “home” for college, she was able to juggle academics while interning for two years at the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
With a critical financial lift from the Gov. Kenny Guinn Millennium Scholarship Fund and several other scholarships, Touton set her sights on both engineering and communications. She singles out both Batista and Piechota as inspirations.
“(Piechota) took a sabbatical to the Bureau of Reclamation one year to work on some of these water supply issues that I’m working on now,” Touton said. “It was just watching the two of them, then engaging their students in these activities (that) really shaped where I wanted to go.”
Batista’s influence also worked on an additional level. “She’s an amazing professor in the classroom … and she’s a woman in the field,” said Touton. “It’s important to have representation. I never questioned that I couldn’t do it because (Batista) was doing it. That’s something that I hope I’m doing as well.”
In fact, Touton says the bureau has hired twice as many female civil engineers than the national average.
Distinguishing herself as a leader in training, Touton served as the president of the UNLV student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers and participated in racing competitions against other school chapters. “You would design a concrete canoe, you cure it, then you go race it,” she said. “Don’t check our status because we did not do well! But I was often put in the canoe because I was the lightest.”
Moving on to postgraduate studies, Touton earned a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University in Virginia. Now in the Washington, D.C. power corridor, Touton began an impressive rise as a staff member and policy advisor for various U.S. House of Representative committees (including Water and Power, Energy and Natural Resources, and Transportation and Infrastructure), and in the Department of the Interior. Yet it was one of her earliest post-college gigs that left an indelible mark – as an unpaid intern in the office of the late Sen. Harry Reid.
“I learned about how you can take local issues and move them up to a national level,” she said. “I never thought about not punching above my weight class because Harry Reid was there. It doesn’t matter if I’m from the driest state in the nation on water issues – Nevada matters.”
The experience launched her into a life of public service that she cherishes. “The work I do directly impacts Americans. One of my proudest professional achievements was working through legislation that settled the water rights claims for seven Indian tribes and pueblos in New Mexico, Arizona and Montana,” Touton says.
“You see a kid who doesn’t know any better, that water should be coming out of their tap and not hauling it from their trucks every week. Now, I lead the agency that is implementing that law and building the water projects that bring water into their home. It’s a great privilege.”
Finding Still Waters in Compromise
So how does a civil engineer handle what likely doesn’t come naturally to a civil engineer – tightrope-walking that line between policy and politics? Actually, pretty easily. Describing herself as a good engineer but not a great one, she recognizes her strength lies in communicating technical information to policymakers and laying out the impact, making use of both her engineering and communications abilities. “That is something UNLV helped me with,” she says, then explains the parallels with her biggest challenge when it comes to negotiation in this politically divisive time.
“The Colorado River is a great example of that,” Touton says, recalling how as a UNLV student, she attended the Colorado River Water Users Association gathering – “the Super Bowl for water nerds on the river.”
While talking with representatives for Las Vegas and Los Angeles, she also met with farmers from Arizona and Wyoming and the Indian tribes. “These leaders choose time and again the difficult task of collaboration instead of the very easy path of conflict and litigation,” she says.
“What’s amazing now in those partnerships is that some of those very fundamental agreements that they put in place 20 years ago are the ones that I’m executing today in dealing with the drought. At the heart of this is a willingness and ability to see a common goal and want to partner together. This is something that will not change under my leadership at Reclamation.”
In fact, if there is one issue in the entire world she could fix right now, she’s says that’s the one she would apply to every other issue: partnerships and empathy toward each other.
As for more concrete goals, Touton cites three priorities: tackling climate change, economics, and equity as they apply to water issues. “We’re 120 years old this year, the Bureau of Reclamation, and we’re facing a changing landscape,” Touton said.
“It’s warmer, drier more often. We rely on snowpack to be there, and oftentimes it’s at higher elevations. This is something we’re dealing with in real time. We have a great opportunity with the bipartisan infrastructure law — $8.3 billion for investment in infrastructure for Reclamation — to help build resiliency for the future, for the next 120 years.
“How do we look at the Hoover Dams and the Grand Canyons of the world and think of investing in those so that we can operate a little differently and be around for another century?”
Mermaids stirred her private imagination. UNLV provided tools to face our collective realities. Mythical creatures – plus all the rest of us – are fortunate that Camille Touton is our champion.