Katheryn Higgins: Louisville Water’s first female engineer

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, we’re paying homage to trailblazer Katheryn Higgins.

When she began working at Louisville Water in June 1983, she was the company’s first female engineer as well as the first black woman to hold the position.

“My degree is in chemical engineering, so I started my career at Crescent Hill Treatment Plant. I transitioned into civil engineering when I began working with the distribution water mains and the rehab and replacement program,” Higgins said.  “Our priority back then was to get the lead water mains out of the ground and then replace them. I did some of those replacement projects.”

Being the first female engineer as well as the first black female engineer was an interesting experience, especially during a time when workplace environments were not as diverse as they are today.

“Some people were very accepting and respectful of my credentials and others weren’t,” she said. “I scored very high on my ACT and was offered a scholarship in engineering. Back then, there weren’t enough men going into that field, so they began recruiting women.”

Higgins graduated from the University of Louisville and earned a degree from the J.B. Speed School of Engineering.

“I was a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and I also attended many American Society of Civil Engineers events. After graduating, I served as president for the Speed School Alumni Board,” she said.
Once coming on board at Louisville Water, Higgins said she worked on many of the filtration systems in use today.

“My first big project was replacing the filtration system at the Crescent Hill Filtration Plant. Filtration is one of the later steps in water treatment. Another project I worked on involved safety at the B.E. Payne Plant. Safety is so important to me because employees aren’t just employees. They’re fathers, brothers, spouses, family members and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt on the job. With this project, I redesigned the process employees used to get samples so they no longer had to get into the actual elevated chemical storage tanks. That way you don’t have to worry about someone falling. I was very proud of that project,” she said.

Higgins has advice for young women thinking about pursing an engineering career:

“Take all the math and science classes that you can!”

Higgins retired in January 2004 and said she felt like her work truly made a difference.

“I felt fortunate to be able to make a positive impact with something so healthy as drinking water. Drinking water is a sacred trust when it comes to people’s health and wellbeing. You can live 30 days without food but maybe less than a day without water. That’s how important water is and it is something I take very, very seriously. Louisville is so fortunate to have a great supply and water source with the Ohio River. If you go out west, they have very little water. That’s really a blessing that we shouldn’t take for granted,” she said.

More than 18 years have passed since Higgins retired and she said two things are certainly different since she left Louisville Water.

“The billing system has changed and Third Street is two-way, now!”