Out West student blog

A piece of the climate puzzle

Venturing to the Teton Mountains to explore the rugged landscape of the Central American West. Image credit: Emily Klingaman

Emily Klingaman ‘22
Hometown: Vienna, VA
Major: Environmental Systems Engineering
Intern, Department of Water Resources

Here we are, a year and a half into shutdowns, social distancing, and virtual everything. Most aspects of life were put on hold. Climate change across the American West did not stop for COVID-19, however--if anything, its shadow over daily life intensified. Wildfires burn across old forests, limited water falls from the western skies, and each summer continues to be hotter than the last. This feeling of climate anxiety and burden loomed over me as I saw pictures of an eerie orange sky in San Francisco on Twitter. How could I, a girl stuck in her parents’ house on the East Coast, even make a small dent in effecting change? 

The opportunity to be a Shultz Fellow and intern at the California Department of Water Resources was just that, my chance to get my foot in the door. I felt empowered to work at an agency that touches the lives of over 25 million California residents. My team’s current project is to model large scale solar photovoltaic farms to power individual pumping plants along the State Water Project (SWP). I was lost in the details for the first few weeks, a common intern learning curve. Yet, with the help of my mentor, the Excel spreadsheets have come alive for me. Being on the ground might be a more connecting experience, but I have found deep fulfillment and service through my virtual work thanks to our project being a small piece of the larger climate puzzle, as well as my genuine curiosity. 

Image left: Exploring the California Central Coast at Big Sur. Image credit: Emily Klingaman

Rooting myself in the larger “why” has allowed me to feel deeply connected to my work. It is no longer just a spreadsheet, but a contribution to help fight climate change. Understanding that our project is a piece in the DWR’s puzzle to help fight climate change has helped me feel as though I am contributing to the well-being of many people. The DWR is required to help achieve California’s goal of 100% renewable energy by 2040. Without our project, the puzzle cannot be completed. For example, solar photovoltaic farms work to generate electricity to allow the pumping plants to pump water. When there is extra electricity, the plants can pump water and put the energy into storage. This energy storage can then be used to offset loads elsewhere, helping to green-the-grid. By doing so, California reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Working on this project is a role that not many people get to be in, so I must use my power to contribute to social good for the state of California and its residents. 

I will leave this summer knowing that I have contributed to the advancement of the DWR’s role in California’s fight against climate change. Eventually, our work will multiply to cover all of the pumping plants across the SWP, and we will continue to positively impact the lives of more than 25 million Californians.


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This year's Rural West Conference took place on April 8 and 9 in Pocatello, Idaho, where three engaging panels explored regional issues related to wildfire, the future of ranching, and water.