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10 Minutes With Sandra Kerl

San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Sandra Kerl recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell’s Wendy Broley, director of technical practices, and Mike Puccio, Southern California operations director, to talk about her experience dealing with unprecedented challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, and drought.

Sandra Kerl-10 Minutes With-San Diego County Water Authority

10 Minutes With Sandra Kerl

Sandra Kerl has been with the San Diego County Water Authority  since 2009 and was appointed the general manager in November 2019. One of her first challenges as GM was leading the transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic for about three-quarters of the Water Authority’s 250 employees. Sandra recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell’s Wendy Broley, director of technical practices, and Mike Puccio, Southern California operations director, to talk about her experience dealing with unprecedented challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, and drought.  

What is the most important leadership quality in dealing with the unprecedented challenges facing the industry?
Today’s leaders need to be inclusive, and focus on cooperation, engagement, and partnerships. The issues are so complex; the problem-solving that needs to happen requires many stakeholders. I think we have a lot more pressures regarding inclusivity, including issues related to water affordability. One challenge with engagement and inclusion is bringing in folks who haven’t necessarily been part of the water conversation before, both from a policy as well as an employment standpoint.

As a leader, one constant is knowing and admitting that you don’t know everything. You’re scanning the environment and you’re pivoting and reacting with information that is coming in real time.

The Water Authority has been making huge investments in supply reliability over the last several decades—improving storage and water supply diversification. How does that impact your leadership within the region during the current drought?
From our standpoint, we approach water as a statewide issue. We are all Californians working 24/7 to ensure access to water for everyone. We want to be part of the solution.

Our wake-up call to the changing availability of water was during the drought of the late ’80s and early ’90s. We invested heavily in new supplies and infrastructure, storage, piping to move water where it’s needed, asset management to ensure our pipelines aren’t leaking, and those sorts of things. And even compared to the drought of 2012 through ’16, we’re in a better position today because we have realized the full implementation of all of our new sources of supply. In addition, we’ve had such heavy conservation and water use efficiency. We use 50 percent less water today per capita than we did in 1990. And that is a big part of how we’ve met the challenge.

From a regional perspective, we’re not all the same within the state. We don’t have the same assets and issues. At the same time, the Water Authority is looking at how can we help other areas of the state. As an example, we have groundwater stored in the Central Valley and our board has approved working with any agency that is interested in that water and who can pipe the water to its destination, because we have reliable supplies without it.

The hard thing is, you have to really look at what’s going to move the needle. Is it going to move the needle if we save an acre-foot of water here in San Diego? Is that going to help Northern California? No, because we take very little water off the Bay Delta. But, if we could be able to take some of our water out of storage and provide that to another area of the state, or if we could get storage in Lake Mead so that the Colorado River is not as impacted—those are things we can do to help. I’d like to be able to focus in that area and continue to support the economy and the quality of life in San Diego County in a way that folks here have invested in for many years.

What are some of the strategies the Water Authority is deploying to address climate change resiliency and adaptation?
Because of the investments that we’ve made in raising the height of San Vicente Dam, it’s doubled the storage capacity there. The facility is owned by the City of San Diego, but the Water Authority did the dam raise. We’re partnering with the city to create a large storage hydroelectric facility there, which is closed loop and could provide up to 500MW of power and utilize renewables in a way that, when the sun goes down, the hydroelectric facility can be put on and we can utilize those resources. You might ask, “Why are you looking at that?” It’s because there’s an opportunity to monetize existing assets and create a revenue stream for the city and the Water Authority to help offset water costs, while helping to combat climate change. It also helps with the stability of the power grid. We had power outages in San Diego last August and if we had this project online, we wouldn’t have had those issues.

What are some of the obstacles you are facing in achieving the Water Authority’s desired level of resiliency and supply reliability?
In terms of the San Diego region, we have very high supply reliability. I think the biggest challenge for us is the affordability component and how to balance having those resources and ensuring the ability of folks to pay for it over the long-term. That is very challenging and concerning. We’re part of a new caucus at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) focused on disadvantaged communities and addressing how resources get allocated to disadvantaged communities. As an example, when there’s conservation funding available, how is that shared? And how can those communities take advantage of it?

Statewide, we are seeing benefits of greater regionalization while simultaneously an increase in the localization of supplies. Where do you think we need to be on that spectrum as a state to meet these incredible challenges? How do you think this applies to the San Diego region?
I think we as water managers do a better job when we look at the big picture as opposed to our space alone. The reality of implementing that big picture is very challenging. We see a microcosm of that here in the region, and we’re really looking at the One Water initiative at MWD and how we best connect with that.

There is a very different dynamic than 20 years ago when many local retail agencies weren’t looking at developing their own supplies. They were counting on the Water Authority to provide that reliability.

The next increment of water supply is coming from our member agencies, it’s not going to be the Water Authority’s projects. For example, acceptance for water reuse is a game changer. So is the possibility of regulation and legislation that would eliminate wastewater discharge. This has increased the interest in agencies wanting to do their own water reuse projects. We are recognizing this shift and taking into account when these projects are going to come online in our urban water management plan. It’s about how to find that balance and work cooperatively, and we’re at ground zero. I think other regions are going to be entering this conversation as time goes by, and I wonder what role the state is going to play in terms of overlaying policy that may usurp the local or regional planning processes, and how will that shape our investments?

Agencies are having to do so much more with so much less—that goes for water as well as funds. In many ways we need to look to innovation to fill that gap. How are you incorporating innovation in the culture of the Water Authority?
Innovation is critical to the Water Authority, and we have a formalized innovation program that engages every department. It’s really something that is a sense of pride for employees. They are encouraged and expected to think innovatively and assess how to do things differently. That kind of thinking includes things like how we communicate financial information to the departments at a level that’s very actionable as opposed to reams of spreadsheets. How do you get actionable data to our own crews developing tools to be able to assess the condition of 310 miles of large-diameter pipes in our system? The range of ideas is enormous.

Since COVID, so much has changed. What changes have you experienced or proactively planned to enhance your organization’s culture?
The one thing that I’m super proud of, and especially doing it during COVID, is evolving the nature of our culture as an organization by creating new values that resonated and reflected who we are today. This was done through a committee of employees at all different levels in the organization called a Values Discovery Team, and they were trained in appreciative inquiry, a strengths-based positive approach to leadership and organizational change.

They interviewed employees that they didn’t work with directly. Out of those interviews emerged stories of who we are at our best, and out of that came seven values. Previously, our values were very much focused on getting the work accomplished. With these updated values, the first four of the seven have a human element to them, which is a significant change in terms of the culture of this organization.

We still expect excellence, we still innovate, but we also hear different perspectives. We value diversity. We engage in the tough conversations. It just has a very different flavor. And I believe that’s what will keep this organization strong—that there’s a balance of both the human and the work.

10 Minutes With Sandra Kerl

San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Sandra Kerl recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell’s Wendy Broley, director of technical practices, and Mike Puccio, Southern California operations director, to talk about her experience dealing with unprecedented challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, and drought.

Sandra Kerl-10 Minutes With-San Diego County Water Authority

10 Minutes With Sandra Kerl

Sandra Kerl has been with the San Diego County Water Authority  since 2009 and was appointed the general manager in November 2019. One of her first challenges as GM was leading the transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic for about three-quarters of the Water Authority’s 250 employees. Sandra recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell’s Wendy Broley, director of technical practices, and Mike Puccio, Southern California operations director, to talk about her experience dealing with unprecedented challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, and drought.  

What is the most important leadership quality in dealing with the unprecedented challenges facing the industry?
Today’s leaders need to be inclusive, and focus on cooperation, engagement, and partnerships. The issues are so complex; the problem-solving that needs to happen requires many stakeholders. I think we have a lot more pressures regarding inclusivity, including issues related to water affordability. One challenge with engagement and inclusion is bringing in folks who haven’t necessarily been part of the water conversation before, both from a policy as well as an employment standpoint.

As a leader, one constant is knowing and admitting that you don’t know everything. You’re scanning the environment and you’re pivoting and reacting with information that is coming in real time.

The Water Authority has been making huge investments in supply reliability over the last several decades—improving storage and water supply diversification. How does that impact your leadership within the region during the current drought?
From our standpoint, we approach water as a statewide issue. We are all Californians working 24/7 to ensure access to water for everyone. We want to be part of the solution.

Our wake-up call to the changing availability of water was during the drought of the late ’80s and early ’90s. We invested heavily in new supplies and infrastructure, storage, piping to move water where it’s needed, asset management to ensure our pipelines aren’t leaking, and those sorts of things. And even compared to the drought of 2012 through ’16, we’re in a better position today because we have realized the full implementation of all of our new sources of supply. In addition, we’ve had such heavy conservation and water use efficiency. We use 50 percent less water today per capita than we did in 1990. And that is a big part of how we’ve met the challenge.

From a regional perspective, we’re not all the same within the state. We don’t have the same assets and issues. At the same time, the Water Authority is looking at how can we help other areas of the state. As an example, we have groundwater stored in the Central Valley and our board has approved working with any agency that is interested in that water and who can pipe the water to its destination, because we have reliable supplies without it.

The hard thing is, you have to really look at what’s going to move the needle. Is it going to move the needle if we save an acre-foot of water here in San Diego? Is that going to help Northern California? No, because we take very little water off the Bay Delta. But, if we could be able to take some of our water out of storage and provide that to another area of the state, or if we could get storage in Lake Mead so that the Colorado River is not as impacted—those are things we can do to help. I’d like to be able to focus in that area and continue to support the economy and the quality of life in San Diego County in a way that folks here have invested in for many years.

What are some of the strategies the Water Authority is deploying to address climate change resiliency and adaptation?
Because of the investments that we’ve made in raising the height of San Vicente Dam, it’s doubled the storage capacity there. The facility is owned by the City of San Diego, but the Water Authority did the dam raise. We’re partnering with the city to create a large storage hydroelectric facility there, which is closed loop and could provide up to 500MW of power and utilize renewables in a way that, when the sun goes down, the hydroelectric facility can be put on and we can utilize those resources. You might ask, “Why are you looking at that?” It’s because there’s an opportunity to monetize existing assets and create a revenue stream for the city and the Water Authority to help offset water costs, while helping to combat climate change. It also helps with the stability of the power grid. We had power outages in San Diego last August and if we had this project online, we wouldn’t have had those issues.

What are some of the obstacles you are facing in achieving the Water Authority’s desired level of resiliency and supply reliability?
In terms of the San Diego region, we have very high supply reliability. I think the biggest challenge for us is the affordability component and how to balance having those resources and ensuring the ability of folks to pay for it over the long-term. That is very challenging and concerning. We’re part of a new caucus at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) focused on disadvantaged communities and addressing how resources get allocated to disadvantaged communities. As an example, when there’s conservation funding available, how is that shared? And how can those communities take advantage of it?

Statewide, we are seeing benefits of greater regionalization while simultaneously an increase in the localization of supplies. Where do you think we need to be on that spectrum as a state to meet these incredible challenges? How do you think this applies to the San Diego region?
I think we as water managers do a better job when we look at the big picture as opposed to our space alone. The reality of implementing that big picture is very challenging. We see a microcosm of that here in the region, and we’re really looking at the One Water initiative at MWD and how we best connect with that.

There is a very different dynamic than 20 years ago when many local retail agencies weren’t looking at developing their own supplies. They were counting on the Water Authority to provide that reliability.

The next increment of water supply is coming from our member agencies, it’s not going to be the Water Authority’s projects. For example, acceptance for water reuse is a game changer. So is the possibility of regulation and legislation that would eliminate wastewater discharge. This has increased the interest in agencies wanting to do their own water reuse projects. We are recognizing this shift and taking into account when these projects are going to come online in our urban water management plan. It’s about how to find that balance and work cooperatively, and we’re at ground zero. I think other regions are going to be entering this conversation as time goes by, and I wonder what role the state is going to play in terms of overlaying policy that may usurp the local or regional planning processes, and how will that shape our investments?

Agencies are having to do so much more with so much less—that goes for water as well as funds. In many ways we need to look to innovation to fill that gap. How are you incorporating innovation in the culture of the Water Authority?
Innovation is critical to the Water Authority, and we have a formalized innovation program that engages every department. It’s really something that is a sense of pride for employees. They are encouraged and expected to think innovatively and assess how to do things differently. That kind of thinking includes things like how we communicate financial information to the departments at a level that’s very actionable as opposed to reams of spreadsheets. How do you get actionable data to our own crews developing tools to be able to assess the condition of 310 miles of large-diameter pipes in our system? The range of ideas is enormous.

Since COVID, so much has changed. What changes have you experienced or proactively planned to enhance your organization’s culture?
The one thing that I’m super proud of, and especially doing it during COVID, is evolving the nature of our culture as an organization by creating new values that resonated and reflected who we are today. This was done through a committee of employees at all different levels in the organization called a Values Discovery Team, and they were trained in appreciative inquiry, a strengths-based positive approach to leadership and organizational change.

They interviewed employees that they didn’t work with directly. Out of those interviews emerged stories of who we are at our best, and out of that came seven values. Previously, our values were very much focused on getting the work accomplished. With these updated values, the first four of the seven have a human element to them, which is a significant change in terms of the culture of this organization.

We still expect excellence, we still innovate, but we also hear different perspectives. We value diversity. We engage in the tough conversations. It just has a very different flavor. And I believe that’s what will keep this organization strong—that there’s a balance of both the human and the work.

Drinking water-desalination plant-water supply-drought

WaterSmart: Weathering Dry Times in San Diego County

News stories by national and regional media outlets highlighted the investments by the San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies to create a plentiful water supply for the region, helping to weather dry times like the current drought.

The New York Times, Spectrum News 1, The Wall Street Journal and Wired Magazine are among several news organizations that have reported on the region’s water supply projects, current and future, that ensure the 3.3 million residents of San Diego County won’t be left high and dry during times of drought. The news stories also recognize the successful efforts by the region’s residents to significantly reduce water-wasting practices by embracing a “conservation ethic.”

Water supply in dry times

California-based reporter Jill Cowan visited the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant and the San Vicente Reservoir, among other locations, for her article in The New York Times. The story covers regional water supply projects and investments made by the Water Authority and its member agencies to ensure San Diego County would not be stuck “at the end of the pipe” during periods of drought.

 “There are no silver bullets anywhere,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, who noted San Diego’s strides. “They’re definitely in the upper echelon of these creative approaches.”

Chula Vista resident and Sweetwater Authority customer Paul Rodriquez was highlighed in the story as one of many county homeowners who are WaterSmart: Conserving water by yanking out turf for drought-tolerant landscaping and using water-efficient fixtures indoors.

Desalination plant-New York Times-Jill Cowan-Jeremy Cructchfield

San Diego County Water Authority Water Resources Manager Jeremy Crutchfield (L) explains the reverse osmosis process to The New York Times Reporter Jill Cowan (R) at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

“Let’s Diversify”

Spectrum News 1 Reporter Sarah Pilla wrote about the region’s water supply history and how an historic drought led to investments that created a diverse water supply portfolio:

Back in the drought of the ’90s, 95% of San Diego’s water came from one source, and they faced 30% cuts for 13 months.

“Of course being at the end of a pipeline, when there’s little water available, you are at high risk. So, our community came together and said let’s diversify,” Kerl said.

Fast-forward 30 years later, and the San Diego County Water Authority has multiple streams of water sources in its portfolio, including the groundbreaking Carlsbad Desalination Plant that utilizes ocean water to provide the region with about 10% of its drinking water.

Video and story: https://bit.ly/3DWFM1F

Desalination-Sandra L. Kerl-Sarah Pilla-primary

San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Sandra L. Kerl (L) talks with Spectrum News 1 (LA) Reporter Sarah Pilla, at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Diverse portfolio of resources

Wired Magazine writer Matt Simon focused on the science of water recycling and the Pure Water San Diego project.

If that all sounds like a rather convoluted way to get drinking water, that’s because the American West is facing a rather convoluted climate crisis. San Diego—and the rest of Southern California—have historically relied on water from Northern California and the Colorado River. But they’ve always been at the end of the line. The river hydrates 40 million other people in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico, and it is withering under a historic drought, a harbinger of even worse water scarcity to come as the climate warms.

So San Diego has to figure out how to do more with less water. The Pure Water program aims to provide more than 40 percent of the city’s water from local sources by the year 2035 by reusing water recycled from homes and businesses. (That means water that has flowed through sinks, showers, toilets, and washing machines.) “We’re diversifying the portfolio,” says Todd Gloria, San Diego’s mayor. “We’re heavily dependent upon water that comes from very far away, and that’s a problem that we have to address.”

Read more: https://bit.ly/30xU8qF

Pure Water San Diego-Wired-Water Supply Portfolio

Pure Water San Diego Associate Engineer Anthony Van guides a virtual tour of the demonstration facility. Photo: City of San Diego

Dry Times and Cutbacks

Reporter Jim Carlton, with The Wall Street Journal, visited San Diego County In June 2021, reporting on the differences in water supply and drought conditions in California: “California’s Drought Leads to Cutbacks in Marin County but Not in San Diego

The pain of a two-year drought drying up the American West isn’t being felt evenly across the country’s most populous state.

That is because Southern California water agencies have for decades invested in new ways to diversify their supplies and recycle what they get, say people who study and work with water in the West. In Northern California, meanwhile, a history of more plentiful rain and snow meant many communities were less prepared for the latest drought and now more homes and businesses must cut back.

San Vicente Reservoir-Wall Street Journal-Jeff Shoaf

Jim Carlton, reporter with The Wall Street Journal (L) listens as San Diego County Water Authority Principal Engineer Jeff Shoaf describes the San Vicente Dam raise during Carlton’s visit to the San Vicente Reservoir in June 2021. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

“Plenty of water”

The Southern California News Group published an editorial, “SoCal’s water planning offers lesson for state” on October 19:

It’s beyond ironic that the driest, most-populated parts of California are in reasonably good shape whereas the less-populated rainiest parts of the state are in dire straits. San Diego, for instance, had so much water during the last drought that it had to release some of it from its reservoirs. It has plenty of water during this current drought.

Statewide Drought Emergency Declared

Water Shortage Contingency Plan Level 1

Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Oct. 19 extension of the statewide drought emergency to all counties in California, the San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors voted unanimously to activate the agency’s Water Shortage Contingency Plan. That plan includes a call for increased voluntary conservation by San Diego residents. CBS 8 Reporter Heather Hope reported on the Board action and tips for how people can reduce water use.

In support of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s water conservation efforts following California’s two record-dry years, the San Diego County Water Authority activated its “Level 1,” or Voluntary Conservation of its Water Shortage Contingency Plan.

“We’re trying to achieve 15% to be consistent with the governor’s request of 15% voluntary conservation. It’s using what you have efficiently and not wasting,” said San Diego County Water Authority Water Resources Manager Jeff Stephenson.

How San Diego Gets Its Drinking Water

Reporter Jill Cowan with The New York Times, provided a tour of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, in a story published October 29, 2021.

Whenever California is pummeled by drought — as is still very much the case despite recent rain — a lot of people find themselves asking, “What if we got water from the ocean?”

In San Diego County, it’s already happening at a $1 billion facility by the beach.

Recently, as I reported on San Diego’s decades-long quest for water stability, I visited the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, the largest such facility in the country, to see how it works.

Pure Water Oceanside

Reporter Leah Pezzetti, with ABC 10 News San Diego, visited the City of Oceanside’s Pure Water Oceanside project on Oct. 29 for a look at the process to purify wastewater into drinking water.

San Diego County has been planning ways to increase its sustainable water supply and one of the planned methods is through turning wastewater into potable water. There are three sites planned in the county and the first one, Pure Water Oceanside, is set to open before the end of 2021. 

(Editor’s note: This story was updated on October 30. The Sweetwater Authority the City of San Diego, and the City of Oceanside are three of the San Diego County Water Authority’s 24 member agencies that deliver water across the metropolitan San Diego region.)

San Diego County is Not Being Asked to Reduce Water Usage. Why?

As California continues to face a drought brought on by record-breaking temperatures, Gov. Gavin Newsom is asking residents to reduce their water usage by 15%. However, this request does not apply to San Diego County.

Sandra Kerl, General Manager at the San Diego County Water Authority, joined KUSI’s Logan Byrnes on Good Evening San Diego to discuss what “America’s Finest City” is doing right.

Kerl explained that due to a “portfolio” of different water supplies and long-term conservation efforts, the city has enough water supply for now, despite the state’s drought.

Public Workshops on California Water Conveyance Projects

The California Water Commission is holding public workshops as part of its efforts to assess a potential state role in financing conveyance projects that could help meet needs in a changing climate. A workshop in Southern California is scheduled for December 10 on Zoom.

The Commission’s goal with the workshops is to hear from diverse voices across the state. Participants from the region are encouraged to share their perspective on conveyance projects, conveyance infrastructure needs and priorities.

Colorado River Aqueduct-Conveyance-California Water Commission

Public Workshop on California Water Conveyance Projects

The California Water Commission is holding public workshops as part of its efforts to assess a potential state role in financing conveyance projects that could help meet needs in a changing climate. A workshop in Southern California is scheduled for December 10 on Zoom.

The Commission’s goal with the workshops is to hear from diverse voices across the state. Participants from the region are encouraged to share their perspective on conveyance projects, conveyance infrastructure needs and priorities. The Commission also wants to learn about effective partnerships, public benefits of conveyance, possible criteria to assess resilience, efforts in preparing for changing hydrology, and effective financing mechanisms. 

“As water managers, we are constantly refining strategies to meet the challenges of the future, and local and regional water conveyance is one of our most significant tools,” said Sandra L. Kerl, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. “It’s important that we come together to advance integrated conveyance and interconnectivity solutions in light of the changing climate so that we can enhance regional water supply resilience for generations to come.”

The workshops are not associated with the pending proposal to improve conveyance through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Public workshops on water conveyance projects; funding options in Colorado River and South Lahontan region

The first workshop will focus on Southeastern California, including the Colorado River region and the Mono, Inyo and San Bernardino County region. The Southeastern California regional workshop will be co-hosted by the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority.

Water management issues and climate change

The workshops will be conducted via the web-based videoconferencing service Zoom. More detailed instructions on how to use Zoom and participate in the meeting can be found on the Commission website.

Additional workshops will be centered on Southern, Northern and Central California. 

The nine-member California Water Commission uses its public forum to explore water management issues from multiple perspectives and to formulate recommendations to advise the director of the California Department of Water Resources, and other state agencies including the California Natural Resources Agency, on ways to improve water planning and management in response to California’s changing hydrology.

Workshop Schedule

All workshops are from 2:45-5 p.m. (entry to meeting site opens at 2:30 p.m.) 

Southeastern California (Colorado River, South Lahontan) – Tuesday, December 8, 2020 (registration open now)

Southern California – Thursday, December 10, 2020 (registration open now)

Northern California – Tuesday, January 12, 2021 (registration open December 14, 2020)

Central California – Tuesday, January 26, 2021 (registration open December 14, 2020)