Six years ago, Kim Sturgess plunged head first into Canada's most critical commodity business. We're not talking oil and gas here. It's water - the scarcest, most sensitive stuff on Earth. That puts her at the forefront of an issue that will dominate environmental and public policy debate, no more so than in her home province of Alberta. Ms. Sturgess, 55, an engineer, former management consultant and serial entrepreneur, runs Alberta WaterSmart, a not-for-profit firm advancing water solutions and awareness. In Ms. Sturgess's world, water and energy collide in dramatic ways, but the issues are always intensely personal.
Did you plan this career?
Who could? No, this is about following your passion.
When you went to engineering school, what were you thinking?
I wanted to fly space ships - didn't everyone? From a very early age, I wanted stuff to go to space. My dad was a military test pilot who flew the jets and, right from the early age, I wanted to build engines that make things go far. I took engineering physics at Queen's, but unfortunately in 1977, the bottom fell out of the aerospace market. So that required a bit of rethinking. I started to realize I had a passion for Canada and wanted to stay in Canada. But there wasn't an aerospace industry in Canada of any size.
We had the Green Revolution and Club of Rome, so I got quite interested in the environment and energy. And I always had a passion for water. When we were kids, my dad would throw us all in the station wagon and off we'd go to a cottage beside a lake.
Does that carry through your life?
I am a river person and I determined that early. You are either an ocean person or a river person. I spend three weeks of every year beside the Athabasca River in Jasper. This will be my 19th year in the same place. I'm a camper and managed to upgrade to a hard-sided tent. It's me and the dog and off we go. I like to have my quiet reflective time.
Why have you been so mobile in your career?
I was entrepreneurial, for sure. The last time I applied for a job was with McKinsey in 1984. So I've always thought about structuring and creating something of worth. And I don't think I am a good big-company employee. I remember a mentor saying, 'Kim, you have a couple of choices here - you can be either a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond. You probably will be more comfortable being a big fish.' It's always been that way.
And it is this woman's thing too. Thirty years ago, it was still not terribly comfortable for women to be in all these [corporate]environments. I just didn't understand the dynamics sometimes.
Around Fort McMurray's oil sands, what is the key water problem?
For people around the rest of the world, when they view water use in Canada, they think we're just squanderers. Europeans think we are providing filthy water and destroying the first nations. Well, no. And there isn't really a water shortage issue in the province's north. There are cyclical [issues] but there is a lot of water. The Athabasca is one of the most protected rivers in the world. The problem is how we've dealt with it by creating these massive tailing ponds.
When you think of tailing ponds, it's traditional mining on a grand scale, but it is archaic. We have basically said to [oil sands]operators: 'It's like you're having a baby and the baby cannot pee for its entire life. You can have no discharge for your entire life.' Well, that is completely ridiculous. That's the issue: We need to clean up the tailings.
We have the technology, and people in this office know a lot about how to clean up tailings. But it is what you do with the water when you get it clean. What sane environment minister would agree to put it back in the river? I understand that politically. So now we are looking at other uses in the area, such as in SAGD extraction [steam-assisted gravity drainage] Our mantra is regional solutions: How can you recover, recycle and re-use the water [in environmentally responsible ways]
But aren't huge volumes of water used in other oil and gas extraction?
On the shale gas side, they haven't even begun to look at that. I think those folks have been running under the radar screen and they are going to get hit on water. When the environmental groups see they have done their job, in the sense the oil sands are dealing with these issues responsibly, they are going to move off to shale gas.
So the oil sands can survive the barrage of opposition?
The oil sands are not going away. My brother has been serving in Kandahar and he comes out today. I'm all over this energy security issue and it is very personal. You put a box around it and say 'I think we should be doing energy in North America.' Even though I consider myself really green, I believe in the oil sands because I believe in Alberta and in North America. That's our future - that we can't depend on these flaky places [for energy]and keep sending our families there.
[Environmentalists]will see we've dealt with the water issues as best as we possibly can. In the next couple of years, they're not going to get leverage off what we [in Alberta]are doing, But if the NGOs, the Greenpeaces of the world, had not done their job, we would not have the passion I now see in some of the CEOs in Calgary to solve the problem..
Is it just as challenging to deal with water use in the south of Alberta?
In Alberta, we have the complete opposite of what everybody else in the world has - we have big cities upstream from the major [industrial and agricultural]use. Nobody else has that. So what is normally considered good practice in the world is not good practice here. If the cities take water out of the river and they don't put it back in, there will be no flow.
One of our big projects involves the Bow River, and it is one of the most exciting things you can do if you are a water person. How do you re-manage a whole river for optimal use, minimizing environmental impact and making sure we produce enough food for the world? We're going to be called upon to produce more food in a big way. And the return-flow issue downstream from Calgary is going to be the next one.
I have so much time for Gwynne Dyer [whose book, Climate Wars, explores the fallout from global food shortages] What is this water going to be used for? It's going to be used for food. The fight is over food and therefore the fight is over water.
When will you retire?
Peter Lougheed had the most wonderful advice. I asked him what retirement was for him, and he said, "Kim, it's when I do it because I want to do it - it's my choice."
What next, besides WaterSmart?
My next one is a self-filtering water bottle. I hate this bottled-water stuff with the plastic bottles. I've been doing this on the side over the last couple of years. So watch out for that one too. Take back the tap, baby.
Why do this kind of work?
If I can't fix what is going on [with water quality]in the Elbow River near my home, I can't live in my house any more, right. It really does come down to that - water is so personal. Businesses sometimes don't get that. They just think 'we'll have to dispose of it.' But someone else is drinking the water you're disposing.
Title: Chief executive officer, Alberta WaterSmart, Calgary
Born: March 29, 1955, in Ottawa
Education: BSc, in engineering physics, Queen's University.
MBA, Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario.
- 1977: Joined National Energy Board as gas pipelines engineer; five years at Esso Resources Canada Ltd. as a reservoir engineer and business analyst.
- On completing MBA in 1984, spent four years with McKinsey & Co.
- Served as vice-president, Greyhound Lines of Canada.
- President and CEO of Revolve Magnetic Bearings Inc. until 2001.
- 2003-05: President and CEO of Pan Terra Industries, a construction services company.
- 2005: Founded Alberta WaterSmart
- 30 years as a director of non-profits and corporations.