by SC Staff Writer Barbara Linstrom
One week into her new position as general manager of the Island Water Association (IWA), Diana Wilson is brimming with excitement.
“I come from a treatment plant that does lime softening, so this is a new treatment technique for me. The staff here are very passionate and patient and really want to teach others, so life handed me a good situation here,” she says.
Managing an all-male staff in the production and distribution side of IWA’s reverse osmosis plant comes with the territory for Wilson, who became the first female GM of a treatment plan in her native state of Iowa back in 2013.
“The field is pretty male dominated, so it was a pretty big deal when I became the first woman in the state to be a GM. Since then, two other women have become managers so we are seeing more in this professional role,” she says.
For IWA, conducting a national search broke new ground for the member-owned utility that has been providing potable water to Sanibel and Captiva since 1966.
“I’m pleased to be on the board of the IWA as we selected our first female director. She was hands-down the best candidate we had,” said Bruce Neill, vice president of the board and executive director of The Sanibel Sea School. “We did something different by bringing her on board. For the most part, our GMs have been promoted from within. This time, we looked for someone with more business and management experience.”
Wilson, who says she was encouraged to become an engineer by a high school counselor who noticed her dual talent in math and science, received her B.S. in civil engineering from Iowa State University in 2003.
“What I liked about civil engineering was that there are about a dozen different branches, with a lot of opportunity to pick and choose. The things I really enjoyed and came easily were in the environmental portion – water systems, hydrology and geo-technical,” she says.
“Water is what really stirred the passion in me and was really where I wanted to be.”
Initially taking a position in geo-technical engineering right out of college, she noticed an opening at the Department of Natural Resources about a year later that was in water supply.
“That was really the defining part of my career. I worked under some people who were at the end of their careers and they were ready to download all of their knowledge and expertise. It was the right timing – I was a sponge ready to absorb it,” says Wilson.
In her new role at IWA, she feels a similar professional kinship already with experienced staff.
“Island Water is in really good hands. From a technical standpoint, it is doing a wonderful job of delivering high quality water to members and keeping prices low,” she says. “And, as a female leader, I know I’m not the person with all the ideas. I welcome feedback and believe in showing deference to others and listening.”
Owned by more than 5,000 members, Island Water has 31 employees and recently received the best water plant in Florida over 5 million gallons from the Southeast Desalting Association.
“My job is to continue to polish and improve upon what IWA does and to work with our board members, who are the representatives of our membership, who are also our owners,” she says.
Ever the educator, Neill is excited for Wilson to bring more community engagement to IWA.
“The board recognizes that Island Water needs to be more present in the community to help educate. People just turn the handle on the faucet and it seems water just magically appears,” he says. “Being stewards of a sanctuary island we need to educate people on the fate of water.”
Pulling from 600-foot-deep wells into aquifers, briny water is desalinized through reverse osmosis and further treated to make it potable.
“I’ve had people ask me if the red tide will affect our drinking water – they think we get our water from the Gulf,” says Neill. “We have a great opportunity to help people better understand their relationship with water, better steward and better enjoy it.”
Wilson started visiting Gulf beaches on the panhandle near the Florida-Alabama state line when she was a young child. She and her husband, Marc, continued that tradition and visited Destin, Tampa and Marco Island as well.
“I hadn’t specifically been to Sanibel until my interview,” she said. “But, I’ve always called the Gulf ‘my happy place.’”
Amazed by the conservation ethic and dominance of the natural environment on Sanibel, Wilson is excited to be both professionally and personally engaged in environmental stewardship.
“It’s really a jewel of an island. That more than half is pristine and natural speaks to the success of its stewardship in this age of development. It’s really something special,” she added.
With her CPA-trained husband, who has been a stay-at-home dad since their 3-year-old was born, and their 6-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter who are attending the Sanibel School, Wilson says the family is happily adjusting to their home in Iona.
“We’re just so excited to wake up on a Saturday and go to the beach. We want to understand more about the aquatic environment and really immerse in the coastal culture,” she says.