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Guest Column: Taking Steps to Resolve Water Lawsuits

After securing more than $350 million for water supply projects in the San Diego region – along with other benefits – the San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors on Feb. 27 voted to dismiss related claims against its Los Angeles-based supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Water Authority Board Honors Retiring Otay Water District GM Mark Watton

The San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors on Thursday honored Otay Water District General Manager Mark Watton for 37 years of public service in the water industry.

The Board issued a proclamation congratulating Watton on “his long and distinguished service to San Diego County upon his upcoming retirement from the Otay Water District” and commended him “for a lifetime of service that has improved the quality of life in our region.”

After 15 years leading the water agency that serves Southeastern San Diego County, and nearly four decades representing the water interests of the county and state, Watton plans to retire in late March. He first served on the Water Authority’s Board of Directors in 1985 and was Board Chair from 1995 through 1996.

“A wonderful career” — Mark Watton

Watton’s water industry career began in 1983, when he was elected to Otay’s Board of Directors. He served in that role for 18 years. Watton was then hired as Otay general manager in 2004.He currently manages the district’s $106 million annual operating budget and 138 employees.

“I’m completely satisfied. It’s been a wonderful career,” said soon-to-retire General Manager Mark Watton. “It’s so gratifying to retire in this industry, knowing there is a new generation coming in, like our new general manager, to continue doing a great job.”

Watton was referring to Otay’s Assistant Chief of Water Operations, Jose Martinez, a U.S. Navy veteran, who was recently hired to be Otay’s new general manager.

Watton also was instrumental in securing high-priority Colorado River water for San Diego County through the Quantification Settlement Agreement.

“Mark was a key player in diversifying the region’s water supply by securing highly reliable supplies from the Colorado River that will continue to benefit our region for decades,” said Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer. “If we had a hall of fame for water pioneers in the San Diego region, Mark Watton would definitely be a member.”

Innovative leadership

The Otay Water District provides water, recycled water, and sewer service to approximately 224,000 customers within roughly 125 square miles of southeastern San Diego County, including the communities of Chula Vista, Jamul, Spring Valley, Rancho San Diego, and unincorporated areas of El Cajon and La Mesa, as well as Otay Mesa along the international border with Mexico.

Under Watton’s leadership, Otay has enlisted the use of drones to modernize preliminary inspections of the district’s 40 potable water reservoirs, four recycled water reservoirs, 20 pump stations, and a recycled water treatment plant. Drone technology saves employee time, improves the safety of workers performing inspections, and ultimately delivers greater value to Otay’s customers.

Watton has also presided over Otay’s deployment of its state-of-the-art leak detection and repair program that has reduced water loss 43% over seven years. In 2018, a 3.3% reduction in water loss saved Otay customers $1.3 million, helping to keep rates low.

“Not only has Mark made a significant impact locally for Otay’s service area, but also regionally and statewide,” said Otay Board President Gary Croucher. “He is an influential thought leader in the water industry and his commitment to our region is unmatched.”

Prudent financial manager

Watton’s leadership has maintained Otay’s AA credit rating from Standard & Poor’s for more than a decade. While many public agencies struggle to keep up with their pension obligations, Watton’s prudent management of Otay’s finances made it possible to fully fund the District’s Other Post-Employment Benefit plan and substantially fund its pension plan in upcoming years.

An innovator throughout his career, he identified an opportunity for a binational solution to Otay’s continued need to diversify its water supplies. On May 16, 2017, the U.S. Department of State granted Otay a presidential permit to build a nearly four-mile potable water cross-border pipeline and associated facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border for the importation of desalinated seawater produced in Mexico. Although obtaining the presidential permit was a milestone accomplishment, Otay’s part of the project is no longer moving forward.

Imperial Valley Tour - San Diego County Water Authority - Regional Conveyance 2020

Imperial Valley Conservation Efforts Benefit San Diego, Southwest

The San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors visited the Imperial Valley January 30 for a day-long tour that highlighted areas critical to the agency’s Regional Conveyance System Study.

Board members approved a study in July 2019, to evaluate a new regional water conveyance system that would deliver water from the Colorado River to San Diego County and provide multiple benefits across the Southwest.  The Board will hear results from the first phase of the study this spring before deciding whether to move ahead with Phase B.

Imperial Valley tour of potential routes for regional conveyance

The tour started in southwestern Imperial County, where the All-American Canal meets the Westside Main Canal, an historic location where, starting in 1919, water from a canal system in Mexico first flowed into the western half of the Imperial Valley. It is also the place where three potential routes for a new water conveyance system, now being analyzed in the study, would begin.

“The goal of the study is to determine first, whether there is a cost benefit to the Water Authority and its member agencies in the long-term to build a regional conveyance system to transport our independent Colorado River supplies from the Imperial Valley directly to San Diego County,” said Dan Denham, the Water Authority’s deputy general manager.

One specific benefit to the Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District, and farmers in the Imperial Valley, would be the proposal to build an operational storage facility in the valley’s western area. The facility could help manage water deliveries to serve the needs of agriculture in the valley, while helping the Water Authority manage its transfer supply.

The trip included visits to several agriculture fields for a first-hand look at the latest conservation techniques used by farmers under the 2003 Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement.

Tom Brundy: Conservation is ‘extremely important’

Tom Brundy has been farming in the Imperial Valley for more than 40 years, and today he grows hay on 4,000 acres. Most of the hay produced by the farm is sold to customers in San Diego County, one of many connections between Imperial and San Diego counties.

“Every farmer in Imperial County is conserving water, and quite a bit,” said Tom Brundy, president of the Imperial County Farm Bureau. “I have subsurface drip on alfalfa, we’re using soil monitors and soil sensors to help us in our water scheduling, and we continue to modify our methods using new technology that saves water.”

Farmer Alex Jack: ‘out of the box thinking’

Jack Bros. Inc. also is an innovator in on-farm conservation. Alex Jack is a third-generation farmer using pump back systems and permanent drip irrigation. Many of his crops, from lettuce to cauliflower, are grown with zero water runoff.

Jack calls his progressive approach “out of the box thinking.”

“My goal is to be the best farmer possible,” said Jack. “If I happen to conserve water, that’s fantastic, but most of the new high-technology methods are conserving water.”

Salton Sea Restoration Program

The east side of the Salton Sea was the final stop on the Imperial Valley tour. Board members got an update on restoration efforts, including the 500-acre Red Hill Marina Wetlands Project, one of the first Salton Sea Management Program projects.

Representatives from the California Department of Water Resources, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Imperial Irrigation District described how the area was once a prime bird-watching location before the Salton Sea began receding. The 500-acre project will decrease dust emissions by creating a shallow marine habitat using water from the Salton Sea and a nearby river.

The project is a partnership between the federal and state government, and the Imperial Irrigation District – with a portion of the funding coming from a federal assistance program that the Quantification Settlement Agreement Joint Powers Authority helped fund. Work is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

The Imperial Valley tour, which highlighted the partnerships between San Diego and Imperial County, was part of an on-going series of tours led by the Water Authority’s Colorado River Program.

Portfolio Tour July 2019

California Agencies Release Draft Water Resilience Portfolio

Three California state agencies today released a draft water resilience portfolio intended to help the state manage more extreme droughts and floods, aging infrastructure, declining fish populations and other challenges.

The California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Food and Agriculture developed the draft to fulfill Governor Gavin Newsom’s April 29, 2019 executive order calling for a portfolio of actions to ensure the state’s long-term water resilience and ecosystem health.

“The portfolio approach to water supply reliability is a significant advance in how our most precious resource is managed statewide, in line with our long-term strategy in San Diego County,” said Sandra L. Kerl, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. “As we review the details of the new plan, we will continue collaborating with the state agencies and other partners to turn this vision into a reality that benefits our region.”

Water Portfolio Tour July 2019

State and Water Authority officials before aerial and ground tour of regional water infrastructure on July 18, 2019. Photo: Water Authority

State agency leaders tour water infrastructure in San Diego County

Several state officials visited San Diego County on July 18, 2019 to assess the region’s water projects as part of their role in developing a water portfolio strategy for the state.

Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Deputy Natural Resources Secretary Thomas Gibson, State Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, and State Water Resources Board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel got a first-hand look at investments to diversify the region’s water supply, including the San Vicente Reservoir, Olivenhain Reservoir, and the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

“San Diego is a great example of the challenges and complexities of managing water supply, as we look to supercharge water resiliency in California,” said E. Joaquin Esquivel, Chair, Calif. State Water Resources Control Board, after the July tour of water infrastructure.

Newsom’s order directed his administration to “identify and assess a suite of complementary actions to ensure safe and resilient water supplies, flood protection and healthy waterways for the state’s communities, economy and environment.”

Draft Water Resilience Portfolio encourages ‘collaboration within and across regions’

“This draft portfolio has been shaped to provide tools to local and regional entities to continue building resilience and to encourage collaboration within and across regions,” said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot in a news release from the three agencies. “At the same time, state government needs to invest in projects of statewide scale and importance and tackle challenges beyond the scope of any region. Taken together, the proposed actions aim to improve our capacity to prepare for disruptions, withstand and recover from shocks, and adapt from these experiences.”

The draft release comes after several months of public input, and listening sessions, including comments from the San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies.

Draft Water Resilience Portfolio outlines more than 100 integrated actionable recommendations in four broad areas:

  • Maintain and diversify water supplies

    State government will continue to help regions reduce reliance on any one water source and diversify supplies to enable flexibility amidst changing conditions. Diversification will look different in each region based on available water resources, but the combined effect will strengthen resilience and reduce pressure on river systems.

  • Protect and enhance natural ecosystems

    State leadership is essential to restore the environmental health of key river systems to sustain fish and wildlife. This requires effective standard-setting, continued investments, and more adaptive, holistic environmental management.

  • Build connections

    State actions and investment will improve physical infrastructure to store, move, and share water more flexibly and integrate water management through shared use of science, data, and technology.

  • Be prepared

    Each region must prepare for new threats, including more extreme droughts and floods and hotter temperatures. State investments and guidance will enable preparation, protective actions, and adaptive management to weather these stresses.

Major Reser

Federal, state, and local governments have built separate systems of dams, reservoirs, and conveyance facilities to move water to cities and farms and provide flood protection. This map, from the draft Water Resilience Portfolio, shows the largest such facilities. Graphic: State of California

To develop the portfolio, state agencies conducted an inventory and assessment of key aspects of California water, soliciting broad input from tribes, agencies, individuals, groups, and leaders across the state.

“From Northern California to the Central Valley and the South, Californians from cities, farms, and other sectors are working together to develop innovative solutions to the climate-related water challenges that the state is already experiencing and that are expected to worsen,” said California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. “This draft portfolio is an important step toward building resilience to ensure the long-term health of our water supplies and ecosystems.”

Public comments on draft portfolio

The public will be able to submit written feedback on the draft portfolio through February 7. A final water resilience portfolio will be released soon after that.

“State agencies are only one set of water decision-makers in California,” California Secretary for Food and Agriculture Karen Ross said. “Continuing to improve our water systems relies on collaboration across all groups of water users and all stakeholders. Accordingly, feedback on this draft will be important to refining and finalizing our portfolio.”

Commentary: How San Diego Water Agency is Seeking to Protect Ratepayers

The San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors is committed to resolving litigation over rates and charges with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. After months of detailed, confidential settlement discussions with best efforts by both parties, no settlement has yet been reached. However, the Water Authority remains optimistic about finding a resolution — all the more so after the Metropolitan board voted on Tuesday to spend $285.6 million in support of the City of San Diego’s Pure Water project.

Cross-Border Water Issues Need Cross-Border Solutions

Regional collaboration and partnerships are needed to solve cross-border water issues, according to San Diego County Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer.

“The Water Authority is exploring innovative solutions to increase water supply reliability for the San Diego region, but also Baja California and the Southwest,” said Madaffer during today’s opening ceremony of RE:BORDER 2019 at San Diego State University. “Those solutions include the possibility of a transborder water connection that can help both Mexico and the United States.”

Madaffer’s special presentation, “Stewarding a Shared Resource for the Bi-National Region,” was part of the two-day RE:BORDER 2019 conference. It continues Tuesday at the Universidad Autónoma De Baja California in Tijuana.

Water Authority Takes Actions to Advance Rate Case Settlement with MWD

The San Diego County Water Authority’s Board officers today thanked the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for making a public offer to settle litigation over MWD’s rates, and directed staff to take the following actions:

  • Schedule special Board meetings in December and January to expedite the process in hopes of reaching a conclusion in early 2020; and
  • Draft a durable, public and mutually beneficial settlement offer for review by the Water Authority Board; and
  • Invite MWD General Manager Jeff Kightlinger to discuss settlement with the Water Authority Board and schedule a reciprocal visit by Water Authority General Manager Sandy Kerl to MWD’s Board.
Sandra L. Kerl is new General Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority

Sandra L. Kerl Appointed General Manager of San Diego County Water Authority

The San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors approved a contract with Sandra L. Kerl to be the new general manager of the region’s wholesale water agency, following a months-long national search. The Board approved the contract in open session during its regular monthly meeting Nov. 21 at Water Authority headquarters.

Kerl fills the position vacated by longtime General Manager Maureen Stapleton, who retired in March. She has served as the agency’s acting general manager since Stapleton’s departure, working closely with the Board to lead a staff of approximately 250 employees at offices in Kearny Mesa, Escondido, the Imperial Valley and Sacramento.

New general manager brings leadership, vision, collaborative approach

“Sandy brings an ideal mix of leadership, experience and vision to guide the Water Authority into a new decade as the agency seeks innovative solutions that benefit San Diego County and the Southwest,” said Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer. “Her creativity and collaborative approach ushers in a new era of partnerships and progress that has marked her work over the past eight months.”

As acting general manager, Kerl has initiated increased engagement with the Water Authority’s 24 member agencies. She has taken a similar approach with staff, issuing the first agency-wide employee survey to help identify areas of improvement. Kerl has more than 25 years of progressively responsible experience in all aspects of municipal management, including the past decade at the Water Authority.

New era begins with Sandy Kerl as new general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority

Sandy Kerl was appointed as general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority by the Authority’s Board of Directors Nov. 21 during its regular monthly meeting. (L-to-R) San Diego County Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer, General Manager Sandy Kerl, Board Secretary Christy Guerin, Board Vice Chair Gary Croucher. Photo: Water Authority

Critical work ahead to meet challenges

“I’m honored to lead an innovative, forward-thinking organization with a talented staff that continually develops creative, pioneering solutions for improving our operations and service to our 24 member agencies and their ratepayers,” said Kerl.

“We’ve made great progress diversifying our water supply portfolio to sustain our thriving regional economy, but we have critical work ahead to ensure reliability in the face of climate change and other factors,” she said. “Increasing partnerships, maintaining efficient operations and ensuring fiscal sustainability will help us meet future challenges while benefitting the region’s ratepayers.”

L to R: Water Authority Deputy General Manager Sandra Kerl, Poseidon Water CEO Carlos Riva, and former Senator Barbara Boxer share a toast at Thursday's third anniversary event at the Carlsbad desalination plant. Photo: Water Authority

L to R: Water Authority General Manager Sandra Kerl, Poseidon Water CEO Carlos Riva, and former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer share a toast on December 13, 2018 at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in celebration of the plant’s third anniversary. Photo: Water Authority

Kerl helped secure financing for Carlsbad Desalination Plant

During her years at the Water Authority, Kerl played a pivotal role in securing financing for the nation’s largest seawater desalination plant, which started commercial operations in Carlsbad in 2015 and produces approximately 50 million gallons of water a day for the San Diego region.

Before joining the Water Authority as deputy general manager in November 2009, Kerl served as city manager of La Mesa. She received her Bachelor of Political Science from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and her Master of Business Administration from the University of Redlands.

The Water Authority hired an executive search firm to manage the recruitment and selection process. During the nationwide search, thirty-two applications were received, and six candidates interviewed by a panel of civic, business, and community stakeholders. The process included a vetting of finalists by the Water Authority’s 36-member Board of Directors, representing 24 member agencies across San Diego County.

“We applaud the Water Authority for including public input during the recruitment and hiring process for this key position in our community,” said Haney Hong, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “Giving stakeholders a voice in hiring Sandy Kerl is another example of the transparency and collaboration we look forward to as she leads the agency.”

Water Authority To Make Acting GM Sandra Kerl’s Position Permanent

The San Diego County Water Authority announced Friday that its officers are negotiating contract terms with acting general manager Sandra L. Kerl to make her role permanent following a national search.

“We are excited about what Sandy brings to the Water Authority — deep experience with water issues and her top-notch skills managing an agency that’s so critical to San Diego County,” said Board Chair Jim Madaffer. “Sandy has the knowledge, temperament and vision to begin a new, collaborative era of extraordinary achievements for our agency and our region.”

Mark Watton, Who Helped Pioneer Historic Pact To Protect Region’s Water Supply, To Retire

Longtime Otay Water District General Manager Mark Watton, regarded as one of the architects of the historic water-transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District, will retire next year.

Watton, who has represented the water interests of Otay, the county and the state for more than 30 years, said he intends to step down in late February.

“Looking back on my career, I’m fully satisfied,” he said.