By Cassie McClure
Published in Las Cruces Sun-News 4.17.2022
Just as sewer lines weave their way through the City of Las Cruces (City), it wasn’t a straight line for Laura Montoya to become the new Las Cruces Utilities (LCU) Deputy Director of Wastewater. From working with the Department of Defense to adding the role of mom, Montoya always asked the questions that led to her career growth and finding her place at LCU.
“My goal was to be a molecular detective, looking for the unknown,” said Montoya. That quest to know the unknown led her to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in both Chemistry and Microbiology from New Mexico State University (NMSU) in 1985.
Montoya then began her career as an Analytical Chemist for the Department of Defense at the High Energy Laser Systems Testing Facility (HELSTF) at White Sands Missile Range (W.S.M.R.) She quit her final position as a senior scientist at HELSTF in 2000 to become a professional mom to her then 18-month-old son.
“After working as a scientist for 15 years, I put my analytical career on hold to become a stay-at-home mom. There is definitely a big difference between the periodic table and ABCs and 1, 2, 3’s, but between my son and I, we figured it out," said Montoya. “It was one of the biggest challenges of my life but by far the single most rewarding one. But as soon as my son started kindergarten, I was right back at it as a research chemist for the National Security Administration supporting research grants at NMSU.”
In 2006, Montoya began her career with LCU in Regulatory Environmental Services as a Wastewater Laboratory (Lab) Technician at the now Jorge A. Garcia Water Quality Lab and, after a short period, became the Senior Lab Technician in charge of the sampling and analysis of both drinking water and wastewater.
“I never actually used my microbiology degree until I started working in the wastewater field,” Montoya said. “I started asking my lab coworkers, what do the operators use this information for in the facility? When I learned more, it became fascinating, and that’s when I started to do more research.”
In fact, she did so much research that now in addition to her full-time job with the City, Montoya is also an adjunct professor of chemistry and microbiology for the Water Technology Program at Doña Ana Community College since 2010. Many of her Water Technology students are now employees in LCU Water and Wastewater.
In 2016, Montoya joined the Environmental Team as the Pollution Prevention Program manager, and in September 2021, she was appointed Interim Wastewater Deputy Director. In February 2022, she was appointed the permanent Wastewater Deputy Director.
“LCU supports and encourages women in science and engineering to be a part of our diverse and talented workforce,” said LCU Director Delilah Walsh. “With women like Laura taking leadership roles, it allows other women to see a career path for them in science or utilities.”
The 40 employees of the LCU Wastewater are responsible for maintaining 550 miles of wastewater collection lines, 18 wastewater lift stations, and operating and maintaining the three Wastewater Treatments Facilities, which treat as many as 12 million gallons of wastewater per day. Plus, Wastewater maintains the production of Class A + Biosolid compost which is given out free of charge to the public.
Her role as Deputy Director will go back to looking for answers, particularly ones that answer questions for both simple things, like odor, and bigger things, like critical safety issues.
“Wastewater treatment is non-stop, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Montoya. “But it’s also up to us to make sure that we enhance the quality of life for city residents by finding answers to reducing odors, which is just a matter of diving into the science.”
LCU – Your Utility Connection. Customer Central can be reached at 575-541-2111 from 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. LCU provides clean, safe, and reliable services to Las Cruces residents and businesses. Learn more at: las-cruces.org/180/Utilities
For emergencies, call Dispatch at 526-0500.
PHOTO 1: LCU Deputy Director Wastewater Laura Montoya.