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Legislative changes to New Mexico’s public employees retirement accounts have prompted the retirement of another key county employee.
Engineering and Surveying Division Manager/County Engineer/Traffic Engineer Kyle Zimmerman steps down in April, after 24 years with Los Alamos County. His memories span significant changes within the county as well as two major fires.
Zimmerman was hired as an assistant engineer in July 1990. His first project was overseeing construction of San Ildefonso Road between Diamond Drive and North Mesa Park.
In 1991, Zimmerman was promoted to deputy director of public works/county engineer. The department had two deputy directors at that time. Zimmerman oversaw the engineering and surveying crews.
One of Zimmerman’s most memorable projects, both good and bad, was serving as project manager for the construction of Mesa Public Library.
American Institute of Architects Gold Medal Award-winning architect Antoine Predock designed the library, utilizing computer-aided drafting for the first time.
“In survey terms, the building didn’t close,” Zimmerman said. “If you start at one corner and you follow the dimensions and angles and went around, when you came back to that corner, you should be very close to that same point. There was a three-foot bust (opening) in the building.”
The triangular opening running through the center of the building also came in at 181 degrees instead of 180.
“And that just went throughout the whole building. We were always finding something that didn’t line up with the dimensions. And we’d think we’d fixed it on the first floor and it would show up again on the middle floor.
“But that was kind of a fun project, too. We did a lot of tours while it was being constructed. Anybody could sign up for a tour and we would run them through the project. A lot of kids, adults. It was just fun.
“And it’s a cool project. It’s a neat building when you walk through it.”
Zimmerman’s traffic engineer duties were added in 1996. In 1998, he became the airport manager as well, overseeing the contractor running day-to-day operations. He still serves as acting manager when the facility is between managers or when the manager is out of town. He was serving in that role when one plane landed another in 2006.
Zimmerman became director of Public Works in 2002 and served in that role until 2011. He stepped down as director after his doctor told him he needed to reduce his stress level.
At that time, he had also been serving as acting county engineer since 2009, as well as traffic engineer, airport manager and certified floodplain manager. Zimmerman has also served as president of the Floodplain Managers Association.
“I requested the county engineer position. They weren’t moving on the county engineer job, and I just couldn’t keep doing it,” Zimmerman said. “And I’m an engineer. I enjoy doing the engineering work, as opposed to managing, and all the personnel actions that take place.”
Zimmerman then talked about the Cerro Grande Fire.
Zimmerman believes the county was fortunate that the Cerro Grande fire occurred in 2000, just months after the county had conducted major exercises and training in emergency operations in preparation for Y2K, when “all the computers were going to freeze up New Years Eve, and the world was going to come to a crashing end.”
The year was ushered in without a bang, but those preparations paid off when the Cerro Grande fire devastated Los Alamos later that year.
“When Cerro Grande happened, they opened the emergency operation center and everybody knew what they needed to do, where they needed to go and we handled it,” Zimmerman said. “If we had not done all the Y2K stuff, I’m sure we would have got through it, but it would have been really messy.”
Public Works played its part by thinning trees, cleaning drainage structures and making sure crews had the equipment they needed. But the department’s major challenge came after the fire, trying to protect the Diamond Drive area from major flooding due to the destruction of the Pueblo Canyon water shed.
The canyon originally had an 18-inch drain pipe, sufficient to handle a peak runoff of 30-cubic-feet per second (cfs) during a 100-year storm. The Burned Area Emergency Response team (BAER) predicted a runoff of 3,000 cfs.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed a 7-foot diameter culvert through the bridge at Pueblo Canyon, the biggest pipe available. But 2003 brought a 25-year flood event that built a 40-foot wall of water behind the culvert, washed out North Mesa Road and sent water down the canyon at 2,000 cfs, destroying sanitary sewer pipes downstream.
Zimmerman was part of the team that helped design and install a 12-foot diameter tunnel through the bridge. The crew had to undergo confined space training for the project.
That experience prompted Zimmerman to become a certified floodplain manager and bring his expertise to the association.
“Not all communities have been blessed with heavy forest fires and the aftermath of it,” Zimmerman said.
Other communities as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have drawn on Zimmerman’s expertise in that area.
Two years after Cerro Grande, Zimmerman was called in to advise La Plata County, Colo., on its recovery efforts after the Missionary Ridge fire. While he was there, he was asked to address a public meeting, and found himself facing a standing room only, 1,000-person audience, as well as public access TV and public radio coverage.
“And I had to basically stand up and tell them that the fires were out, but your troubles are just beginning,” Zimmerman said. “There was one lady in the front row that needed a hug so badly.”
FEMA invited Zimmerman to speak to their mitigation staff in 2012 about New Mexico’s experience dealing with the aftermath of catastrophic fires. He believed he would be addressing a breakout session, and discovered when he arrived that he was the keynote speaker the following day. He rewrote his presentation that night.
FEMA presented Zimmerman with one of his most prized possessions, a Department of Homeland Security medal.
“And the next morning in the hotel, people there from FEMA came up and thanked me for giving the presentation, and said that they had not really thought about the effects of wildfire on watersheds,” Zimmerman said. “They were just dealing with the fire, and not what comes afterwards.”
Zimmerman is looking forward to a quiet retirement here in Los Alamos with his wife Joella. Los Alamos has been their home since 1989, and the couple’s two sons, Michael, 25, and Paul, 22, were born and raised here.
Zimmerman is looking forward to fishing trips and helping to run an essential oil business he and Joella have started. He plans to maintain his professional license in case he decides to do some contract engineering work.
Zimmerman said he will not miss the frequent public meetings he is required to attend, but he will miss his colleagues.
“I think the county is blessed with hard working, dedicated people. There are always a few bad apples in every bunch, but I think, in all, I would put my engineering department up against any consulting firm. When it comes to roadwork, I’ve got a top-notch group.
“Many times people will think we’re second class citizens just because we work for the county. These are good folks. And we’re a family.”
Zimmerman’s last day on the job is April 11.