University of Vermont

Maggie Skenderian: For the Love of Water

Undergraduate alum profile

Maggie Skenderian at the restored Foster Floodplain in Portland, Oregon
Maggie Skenderian at the restored Foster Floodplain in Portland, Oregon

Maggie Skenderian (NR ’94), watershed manager at the Bureau of Environmental Services of the City of Portland, Oregon, where she has led the restoration of Johnson Creek Watershed one floodplain at a time. Maggie was not a typical Rubenstein School student.  She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and after a start and stop foray towards a degree in sociology in the 1970s, she waitressed, dabbled at retail jobs, worked on boats in Maui, Hawaii, shucked scallops in Chatham, Massachusetts, and managed the office of a life insurance agency in Burlington before she started to think about college again.

She took accounting classes at UVM in the late 1980s and considered a degree in business. But a love of chemistry she had discovered in high school still simmered. After attending a Lake Champlain Water Quality workshop, she realized natural resources would become her life focus. Maggie's journey to becoming a full-time student developed into a cover story for UVM Continuing Education's Focus catalog, and life-sized posters popped up all over town.

Maggie recalls then SNR Professor Don DeHayes running up and down the aisles in the Aiken lecture hall teaching NR 1, the School’s core, entry-level ecology class. “He made all of it sound magical, logical, exciting, and accessible, which was the perfect way to set a foundation for inspiring all the work that would follow,” she states. “My advisor [former] Professor Mary Watzin taught me things I still use daily.  Although I’m now more of a bureaucrat than a scientist these days, the rigorous science practices she exposed us to pays off every time I read a scientific journal article.”

She credits Ned Farquhar, a former lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program, for advice on career paths which led her to seek an internship with the land use organization 1000 Friends of Oregon after graduation.  She’s been discovering new opportunities ever since.

When asked what made her gravitate to water resources, Maggie points to the high school chemistry teacher who inspired a curiosity and awe of chemical bonds and the amazing properties of water.  “Water has a deep spiritual element to it that I’m drawn to,” she explains.  “It’s an intangible part of my attraction—maybe just that water really is the elixir of life.”

In 1996, she started working with the City of Portland where she leads a team working to improve the health of Johnson Creek Watershed that spans the boundaries of Portland and several other jurisdictions upstream.  Johnson Creek is one of the few urban streams in the Portland metro area that supports recovering populations of native salmon that swim back and forth to the Pacific Ocean, by way of the creek, its small tributaries, and the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.

Maggie and her team have focused on several floodplain restoration projects along Johnson Creek, and inspired a citizens’ group to adopt Crystal Springs, a key tributary for salmon recovery.  Almost three miles long, Crystal Springs is fed by underground aquifers but suffering from many years of urban misuse.  Together, Maggie and her colleagues at the City of Portland, Portland State University, Reed College, and numerous community volunteers pulled invasive plants and replanted native species, cleaned up dumping grounds, removed concrete barriers and improved culverts at road crossings, and installed wood debris and other enhancements to the channel to restore habitat for salmon rearing and passage.

“I really believe that if we just plant a few seeds, there is such a rich environment here for folks to latch onto the work being done and run with it,” maintains Maggie.  “It’s just a little, trickling, lovely, babbling brook, and it literally has regional significance and could be a national model both for how the scientists deal with water and natural resources and for how communities get behind amazing efforts like this and make it a reality.”

Maggie and the City just completed a two-year project that reconstructed and restored a floodplain and created the Foster Floodplain Natural Area. The project improves the health of the Johnson Creek, provides access and an interpretative trail system for the public, and prevents community damage from floods that occur about every ten years.

The team is now shifting their attention to a comprehensive sub-basin restoration program. They are looking at how to help manage storm water through restoration and conservation starting at the headwaters of Johnson Creek.

Maggie’s responsibilities include supporting her staff to shepherd projects from planning through design and implementation.  “I’ve become somewhat of a generalist, and I’m usually the one pulling loose ends together and negotiating sticky issues between city departments, agencies, or jurisdictions,” she describes.

She is also working with colleagues to develop a system for valuing Green Assets with an Asset Management Framework.  This is a budgeting tool being used internationally by public utilities to help continue funding conservation and restoration of natural systems.

In 2008, Maggie enrolled in Portland State University’s Executive Master's in Public Administration program.  “I felt I needed a different set of tools to help implement the change that science is leading us toward.  Public service is such important work, but we are in very difficult times with more and more distrust of government and lack of understanding about government systems,” she states.  “I wanted to be a more effective agent for change and improve my leadership skills.”  She finished with an executive master’s in public administration in 2011.