For most people, visiting the South Pacific island of Fiji sounds like a dream vacation. For Gavin Devries, Manager of Capital Planning at SJW, it was an opportunity to make a difference in the world by using his professional skills and education to serve his country as a civil affairs officer in the United States Army Reserve (USAR) over the summer.
Devries began his journey with the U.S. Army in 2007, during the height of the Iraq War, where he served as a civil engineer for the medical service corps. Here, he worked with multi-national forces and local Iraqis on water and wastewater related projects. He currently serves as a Public Utilities Officer, specializing in water infrastructure with the 351st Civil Affairs Command of USAR. This allows him the flexibility to pursue a full-time career while developing unique military skills one weekend a month and two weeks per year.
Since 2012, Devries has steadily moved into positions of higher responsibility at SJW, from Associate Civil Engineer to his current supervisory role. “I love working for a company like SJW because the organization is always looking for ways to improve and be more efficient. And, there are ample opportunities to bring new ideas to the table and grow professionally,” said Devries. “Professional and personal growth have always guided what I do. I owe much of what I am able to contribute to the U.S. Army to the great flexibility and latitude SJW has awarded me throughout my career.”
From 2013 until earlier this year, Devries took a hiatus from the Reserves to spend more time with his growing family. He returned to his duties in March 2019 — this time with the U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) division, which oversees development projects throughout the South Pacific region. Almost immediately, he received his first assignment to head up a Civil Affairs and Humanitarian Assistance mission in Labasa, Fiji in July 2019.
This mission was organized through Exercise Cartwheel, a USARPAC-sponsored military training and community engagement program established through Pacific Pathways, which aims to honor the U.S. Army’s enduring commitments to Fiji and a free and independent Indo-Pacific.
Devries and his team devoted their efforts to school visits, where they instructed local children on proper hand-washing techniques, healthy eating habits, and facilitating donations of much needed school supplies such as white boards.
Spending time with the kids, particularly playing rugby with them, was a lot of fun. Fijians are great people, very motivated to learn and were excited for us to be there,” Devries recalls of his time spent in Labasa, the city where his unit was based. He likens the large farming community to a Fijian version of Fresno.
The most rewarding part of Devries’ time there, however, involved the second function of the mission: meeting and sharing information with engineers and operators of the Water Authority of Fiji (WAF) in Labasa. To Devries, this was an opportunity to share experiences and knowledge, and identify future projects that the U.S. Army could partner with WAF in the long-term. “I was very impressed with the staff’s enthusiasm and their excitement to work with us. The engineers and operators were very knowledgeable, hardworking, and focused on delivering safe drinking water to their community. It was a privilege to work with them and share lessons learned at SJW to help them on their path towards providing a more reliable source of water to customers,” said Devries.
By mission’s end, Devries returned to California feeling optimistic and eager to delve into potential collaboration opportunities between SJW and the Fijian staff he had partnered with. Since returning, he has been able to revise the system schematics for the town of Labasa; provide guidance to help improve the town's water loss program and automate their pumping operations; and supply USARPAC with planning level projects for the future. Devries is hopeful that SJW and the WAF can continue to partner together to help develop an asset management plant based on San Jose Water's work in this field, helping WAF to optimize future capital improvements.
“As a 153-year-old utility, SJW has a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge gained over the years in delivering reliable high quality water to customers that can be shared with others. I’m thankful to work for a company with these tools and resources that can really make a difference to our immediate community and potentially others around the world. I’m really looking forward to continuing this work and giving back as much as I can.”
Follow the training and progress of USARPAC and Fiji RFMF on the Defense Visual Information Distribution System at https://www.dvidshub.net/feature/Cartwheel.