A generalist finds her niche in the Corps

Published Feb. 1, 2016
Sara Schultz, water resource planner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, briefs a team of USACE South Pacific Division leaders including Brig. Gen. Mark Toy, South Pacific Division commander.

Sara Schultz, water resource planner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, briefs a team of USACE South Pacific Division leaders including Brig. Gen. Mark Toy, South Pacific Division commander.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – As a “generalist” working amid a building full of technical specialists, Sara Schultz has capitalized on her personal perspective to become a highly successful planner for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District.

Since joining the Corps 18 years ago, Schultz has come to focus on regional water resource challenges, but says, “I’m a generalist in the broadest sense of the word, working alongside a lot of technical specialists, helping translate their findings into a unified solution and convey that to the public for their input.”

With degrees in art history and landscape architecture, she worked for a few years in landscape architecture right after college, but found she wanted something more.

“Even though it’s the Corps of Engineers, I didn’t follow an engineer’s path to arrive here,” she admits.

Schultz earned her bachelor’s degree at University of California Berkeley and completed her grad studies at Cal Poly Pomona. The landscape architecture program at Pomona focused on large-scale watershed planning, which Schultz says is a bit unusual.

The program, which centered significantly on resource management, has proven to be extremely valuable for her.

“I think the field of landscape architecture, in its truest sense, seeks to help improve human interaction with the natural environment,” she explains. “I tried private industry, but I felt I could make a larger impact through the public sector -- to help make people’s lives better.”

Her interest in ecosystem restoration led her to take a position with the Corps in 1998, and ecosystem restoration became a focal point in the aftermath of severe flooding throughout California. Schultz was assigned to a massive watershed study of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, referred to as the Comprehensive Study. “[The Comp Study] felt like a reassessment of the flood management system and was the first time a systemwide [computer] model was established to describe the full California Central Valley watershed,” Schultz says.

By the time the study wrapped up in 2002, Sacramento District’s engineering division had a number of new models that could be applied to other projects.  

“In the Corps, we work as a team to address very complicated water resource problems,” says Schultz. “My part is to synthesize all the information generated by our team and help maximize the benefits from federal investment in a project.”

Schultz has long had ties to the Corps, dating all the way back to her childhood.

She grew up in Visalia, a Central California town just downstream of Lake Kaweah, which is operated and maintained by the Sacramento District. She fondly remembers houseboating on Kaweah with her grandparents.

Schultz and her husband, Steve, have two children – a 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. With a new family, Schultz faced a dilemma between parenting and work. Fortunately, it was a decision that never had to be made as Schultz was allowed to work part-time, helping her maintain what she calls “a healthy work/life balance.”

Flexibility by district leadership allowed them to retain a well-trained employee, and not force a choice between career and parenting.

“It builds loyalty toward the Corps when folks are able to hold on to their jobs and still have time for a young family,” Schultz says.

That loyalty paid off as Schultz was part of the team that helped coordinate a successful briefing of two projects to the Corps’ Civil Works Review Board in December 2015. The dual briefing resulted in support for nearly $3 billion of levee improvements in Sacramento and West Sacramento, if authorized and funded by Congress.

Becoming a successful planner doesn’t happen overnight. But if there’s one skill that could help the process, Schultz suggests having an open mind.

“The ability to listen to lots of different ideas -- sometimes competing ideas – and then letting the numbers show you the answer,” Schultz says.  

Schultz adds, “We always try to identify alternatives that are the least environmentally harmful, and if we can identify an alternative that might also save money because the solution requires less mitigation … that’s really great for everybody and the environment.”

At the end of the day, can a liberal arts major find success and happiness with a Corps full of engineers?

“Definitely!” says Schultz. “I love the feeling of being part of a team. We need each other’s expertise to achieve our goals together.”