CIWR interviews Laura Brown upon her retirement as General Manager of the Soquel Creek Water District

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Date: 
Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Career in Public Service

CIWR interviews Laura Brown upon her retirement as General Manager of the Soquel Creek Water District.

In this interview, Laura Brown looks back on over 30 years working in the public sector and provides her assessment of California’s water sector and water future.  She retains her optimism about the future of the sector but warns that California needs to revisit and revise some of its regulatory sacred cows.  The interview occurred on February 15, 2013 and was carried out by UCSC students Adriana Murguia and Duran Fiack.

How has your educational background helped you succeed in the Water Industry?

My dream has always been to work in public service, not particularly as an elected official, but to work for an elected official, to be able to assist them to assist people with the things that only government can provide. This has always been my passion.

I completed my undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Southern California (USC). While studying at USC the coursework and discussions regarding political theory were particularly helpful in terms of building my understanding of what drives policy, and how to get policy implemented.  As a requirement for my bachelor’s degree, I was required to take three semesters of science. I was never confident in my ability in science, and I chose to take three semesters in geology, which is what my brother had majored in at USC. This turned out to be a positive coincidence. To find myself now, as the manager of SqCWD, the unique thing about the District that very few water agencies have is that we are not only a water purveyor, we are the groundwater management authority for the area. We have the responsibility to manage and protect the groundwater basin, and without that geology background it would have been a real stretch for me to understand the hydrology reports that I had to read on a regular basis. For me, to come full circle, the classes I used the most in my capacity as General Manager for SqCWD were the geology classes. In addition to my undergraduate work at USC, one of the most helpful things was a professional program that I participated in at the University of Virginia, the Senior Executive Institute.  The program was designed specifically for local government managers and the curriculum focused a lot on various aspects of public service, including organizational development, working with elected officials, and the role of a public administrator.

Despite my strong academic background in politics and policy, the most helpful thing for me in succeeding in the water industry as the general manager for SqCWD has been my experience working at various levels of public administration.  After I finished my degree at USC I went to work for Pat Russell, who was the fourth woman to serve on the Los Angeles City Council, and the first woman to be City Council president. I have been working in the public service sector within the Santa Cruz region since 1979. I was hired to work for the Santa Cruz Department of Public Works as an analyst. While with Public Works, I was involved with a number of City management sectors including waste and wastewater management, the wharf, and the streets. This position provided me the broad experience in public utilities, with the exception of water, which is managed by the Santa Cruz Water District (SCWD), a separate City agency. Coincidentally, I started working for Public Works right after the 1976-77 drought, so I was in the community and experienced what water issues meant for the City. If anything has helped me to succeed in the water industry, it is that I have experienced a lot of local water issues, and it’s one of those things where experience counts in terms of helping you to succeed.

Describe some of your personal achievements throughout your career, not just with Soquel Creek Water District but earlier as well.

 One of the things that I was fortunate enough to be given the responsibility and personal accountability to achieve for the City was the creation of the River Street Homeless Shelter. We were offered the property for the shelter, which had previously been owned by UC Santa Cruz, and there were a number of issues with how to develop a shelter in that particular location. The political objective was a homeless shelter that would provide a place for the homeless, particularly the mentally ill, to go and to be protected. At the time, the City didn’t have any department that had Homeless Services as a part of their purview; so they handed it to me as the Assistant City Manager and basically said, “Pull this thing together.” The process took several years, and many organizations were involved in the progression of taking this idea and bring it to fruition. Today, every time I am down in the River Street area, and I see that shelter, I am proud to know that I had some part in making that happen for the Santa Cruz community. The process had all of the elements that working as a public servant in the water sector has. That’s the thing about public administration, the topics change but the problem-solving, the implementation process, the balancing of all the competing interests and of all the legal restrictions remain the same. Not to mention the fact that as a public administrator, you are almost always using public money, and this means that you will usually have strong opposition from groups and individuals whose concerns you must consider in the decision making process. The challenge is to keep all these interests moving in the same direction, and water issues are equally, if not more, complex. Trying to pull all of these elements together in the public environment requires significant coordination and cooperation from all administrative agencies and public organizations involved.

Often, more so than other areas of public administration, the water sector has every element that makes it a complicated problem no matter what it is you are trying to do with it. Looking back at my seventeen years of experience as the General Manager of SqCWD, I can honestly say that I have never been bored working only on one issue, and I have yet to see any issue within City government that can be more complicated, more divisive and more challenging than water. I had twelve years at the City of Santa Cruz, five years as Assistant City Manager in Monterey and I remember when the General Manager position was open at SqCWD I thought, “this is my time to step into the driver’s seat,” and it would be a great opportunity to exercise my knowledge, skills and interest in organizational development and maximizing public service.

In terms of personal achievements for the water district, the legacy I hope to have left and that I am most proud of is the culture of the organization. I think a lot of people, especially the public, tend to overlook how critical it is to have an organization in which everybody is working together, everybody is supporting the common mission, and that first and foremost, they see themselves as being responsible for serving and taking care of the public. I am most proud of the fact that the forty people that work for SqCWD embrace these ideas and principles. I think that driving the culture of the District in this direction has allowed it to improve and maintain a quality level of service to a growing community. When I started, we did not have a conservation program, now we have been recognized in the state as one of the premier conservation programs throughout California. Despite the fact that the population that lives within the SqCWD service area has continued to grow in the last thirty years, since I started, the number of individuals working for the District has only increased by two; so what we have tried to do is maximize technology and free up people, to shift them from areas such as meter reading into areas like conservation services.

If you had the opportunity, how would you reconstruct your preparation for leading a water agency?

Well my first reaction to this question is to say that I would have built more familiarity with the engineering and hydrology sides of water management. Looking back, in terms of the issues that you’re dealing with, it’s important to know the quality of your staff, and if you’re in a position to know whether the hydrologists are making sense, or whether the engineer knows what they’re doing on the engineering side, it would provide somewhat of an advantage. Although, it’s an interesting balance, and there have certainly been some benefits to the fact that I did not have a background as a hydrologist or an engineer. I think more and more the leadership of water agencies needs to be really strong on policy and problem solving and having a technical background doesn’t necessarily mean you are strong at solving public policy issues. I think also, that because I had spent the years leading up to my role as manager of the water district working in public administration, my professional experience had prepared me, more so than someone who would have come from perhaps a water district background, where they haven’t been out in the public fray. This experience was especially critical in Santa Cruz, which has historically been, and continues to be, one of the most challenging cities in the state in terms of public policy because you have a very active and engaged citizenry. But, for me the biggest leap was going from the Assistant Manager, where you always had one person holding the buck between you and the elected official, to realizing that now, as the General Manager, the buck stops with me; that mental transition of, “Oh my gosh now I’m responsible.” Honestly, when I was first General Manager, I would wake up in a sweat thinking things like, “What if we have contamination?” or, “What if a main breaks and we don’t catch it and people are out of water?” or, “What if we get sued for something?”  People could be hurt if we didn’t do our job right and being responsible for a product that has so many health and safety aspects was the cause of some of my greatest anxiety during my early years as general manager. I was just learning how a water system worked and yet I was responsible for something that I couldn’t myself operate. This can be a scary position to be in. And so, having the confidence that the staff in the field knew what they were doing was critical for me, because I was not versed enough to be able to judge for myself.

Comparing the beginning of your career and today, what is the most different in local and regional government? What hasn’t changed very much?

The contentiousness definitely has not changed very much; we typically just change the topic. With regard to local and regional governance of water, I think that there is a lot more emphasis on regional management now. When I first started, there was very little interaction between local water districts. In fact, the water managers would get together once a month but nobody would show their cards, there was little talk about working together on solving a problem. Now, we are always talking about how we can improve our systems collectively, to be able to provide support during an emergency.  There’s much more cooperation and collective problem solving, and we’re looking at ourselves as more of a region rather than independent local water agencies. Now the elected officials and the District Board members are more engaged, and there is more of a partnership between elected members and the staff, as opposed to the elected being figureheads and staff really doing all the groundwork. At the same time, an increase in engagement by Board members exponentially increases the demands on the manager because now you have up to five people who’s needs you have to consider. As the manager, the challenge now becomes figuring out how to get them to realize that they do not operate individually, and that they need to come together to decide as a majority what they want the manager to do.  You can’t respond to individuals when you have a Board, they have to work as a Board, and getting them to understand that has been critical.

I think one of the huge changes that has affected government at all levels, but particularly at the local level, has been the Internet. Members of the public are no longer confined to attendance and oral communication in a public meeting. Now you have so much more interaction with the public, and you have much more opportunity for members of the public, who are promoting a particular agenda, to have a massive platform that they can access with the hit of a button. Individuals and interest groups can now get on a blog and get people stirred up with very little effort, and this can make it a lot harder to put out fires of misinformation. Before the Internet, water agency decision makers pretty much had the pulpit, now everybody has an equal pulpit, and they don’t have the same responsibility of what goes on, on that pulpit. As an elected official or a public agency you have an obligation and a responsibility to tell the truth and provide factual information. Interest groups or individuals from the community do not have to abide by these rules, they can say whatever they want and there is no recourse. The desalination issue is a good example of this. Despite having passionate and well-intentioned motives, the misinformation and the struggle to get the facts out can lead to unnecessary conflict. Walking the line between advocacy and education and the agency’s responsibility to educate and have an informed population, becomes critical and has become much more of a slippery slope than it used to be.

Why do you think there has been an increase in the amount of women who work in the water industry?

The water industry has definitely shifted, from being told that I was the talk of the state as a woman general manager for SqCWD, largely because they had never heard of having a woman general manager, to an industry in which it is now not uncommon to find women working throughout various levels of the industry. I think that this has been a direct result of the fact that there are a lot more women who are choosing to earn their education in the science, engineering and public administration fields. I also believe that women, in particular, can relate to the importance and the necessity of water. Working in the water industry can be the kind of thing that almost calls upon your maternal instinct to help people, and there is nothing more honorable than providing a safe water supply, and I think this resonates very well with women. When I started my work in the water industry, only seventeen years ago, I would go to the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) conferences, with more than a thousand attendees, and we used to laugh because it was the only place you would go and there was never a line to the ladies room. At the first ACWA conference that I attended I counted about seven women, and now more than half of the conference attendees are women. A good local example of the growth in the proportion of women working in the water industry is the desalination project. When I was still General Manager the local Santa Cruz/Soquel Creek desalination staff consisted of four women and only one man. When I started as General Manager, this kind of ratio was not a common occurrence.

What advice do you have for students considering careers in water and for the people just starting out in water careers?

I say, “Go For it!” The water industry is an area in which all of the projections say that we are going to be in short supply of a viable workforce, and we need really good people. I think that something to consider in deciding your career in water is what part of the industry you want to go into. Water can be private, and it can be public, and how the two areas function is very different. If you are considering going into policy, it is important to consider whether you want to be more on the private company or consulting side, or you want to jump into the limelight in terms of public administration. If you are interested in public administration, you will be a visible figure that can be subject to tough criticism. Preparing yourself for this kind of atmosphere, and being able to stay true to yourself and absolutely committed to ethical conduct is an important quality to have because if you don’t you will be a disaster.

What are three things you wish all your customers knew about their water supply?

First of all, I wish that all SqCWD knew that the District’s water supply comes from groundwater. It sounds silly, but with a name like Soquel Creek, some people don’t know that we do not get our water from a creek and, believe it or not, that has been a big dilemma in the District. Secondly, we have a very serious water supply shortage and seawater intrusion poses a significant threat to the quality of the water in our groundwater basin. Third, that numerous years of study and careful evaluation have shown that the only supply alternative that would address our water shortage problem and protect our groundwater basin, by allowing it to recover to acceptable levels, is the proposed desalination project.

What do you think are the biggest threats to water supply reliability in our region?

I think the biggest threat is not having a sufficient and reliable water supply available. We have known about groundwater overdraft in the Soquel area for about twenty years, and yet we still have not solved the problem. We have done everything we can to provide domestic water supplies from our local streams and groundwater basins, and we have got to come up with something different.

What have been some of the most difficult struggles that the Soquel Creek Water District has encountered?

Bringing together all of the physical and financial elements that are required to make the development of a sustainable water supply a reality. The District is currently struggling with this, and the public may have to come to terms with the fact that there is no more cheap water, largely because of the significant capital and operating costs associated with the development of dependable infrastructure and a sustainable supply. In this context, we have been very fortunate in that we have maintained very high credibility with our customers. We just had a water rate hearing for a three-year rate increase that will have, on average, an increase of about 9% each year over the next three years. This rate increase is just to cover the costs of the infrastructure that is required to put in new water mains and move water from the groundwater wells to other parts of the District in order to balance pumping. These projects are huge, and nowadays each new well is costing at least $5 million.

Society is very concerned with the themes of diversity and inclusion. How do these themes emerge in water supply management?

There is some concern regarding diversity and inclusion, and it has been expressed by members of the Board that, with the higher cost of water, you can create a hardship for the economically disenfranchised. Within our district, we don’t have a known low-income population that is going to really have a problem with this, but I think concerns about the issue are important. As water becomes more expensive it is going to be harder for low-income people to meet their needs. Typically, the lower the income, the larger the household size which means more water will be required to meet basic needs, and the less able they are to afford some of the retrofits that would actually lower water use. So I think as water becomes more expensive, you have to be more sensitive to low-income populations, and the challenge with that, for a Special District such as SqCWD, is that under some laws one class of ratepayers cannot subsidize another. So for a water agency, whose sole source of income is water rates, it becomes a real problem to be able to provide a lifeline rate for low-income people. I think this is a challenge, for water agencies that serve low-income populations, that is going to become more and more prevalent as the cost of water goes up. In terms of other diversity issues, I can’t really think of any. I think the water industry has been very open to diversity, and I don’t think the leadership in water has a lot of barriers. The industry tends to be a very welcoming organization.

Santa Cruz Water District and Soquel Creek Water District are examples of centralized water supply management systems. Do you think centralized systems like these will remain in the future?

I think that in theory, you would go for decentralized, regional management. It would make much more sense to have regional management in a small county like ours. We have about nine public water agencies and who knows how many private water companies in Santa Cruz County. However, politically, people tend to become very territorial and feel threatened by consolidation, and other than up in the San Lorenzo Valley where the consolidation was to stop the privatization of a water supply, I think it’s going to be a long time coming before we see a lot of consolidation at the public level. I think the way we are going to move is that instead of jumping to the idea of consolidation, there is going to be more regional cooperation, as we have seen with the desalination project and our grant program, the Regional Water Management Foundation. I think dealing with water agencies as partnerships as opposed to consolidating is going to be the way to go for the foreseeable future.

Will regions move to a more decentralized approach where home and businesses are responsible for treating water to meet potable or near-potable quality standards?

I don’t think so, because the California Department of Public Health would never allow people to take responsibility for their own water quality. We have the most strict drinking water standards in the world here in California and drinking water quality remains to be one of the biggest issues in the state.  For example, even though it has been shown that we could all be drinking reclaimed, recycled sewer water safely, our Public Health Department is so conservative that it has refused to consider this as a viable water supply alternative. I think we will go there eventually, but it would have to come from the state feeling like it is safe, and the responsibility of safety would still be placed on the water purveyor, not on individuals. I think that, if anything, water quality is going to become more regulated as opposed to less.

Regional water management affects everyone. What are the biggest challenges in connecting the technical complexity of water management and the public’s right to know and participate in water management decisions?

Apathy on the part of the public has always been one of the biggest challenges. People don’t perceive that we have a water supply problem because when they turn on their tap, water comes out. People are so busy just getting through their daily lives, that they do not have the time to get engaged in this issue. I always make the comparison to traffic. People living in the Santa Cruz area know that we have a traffic problem in this County, and so they will get engaged on that issue. People’s daily lives have generally not been affected by the water shortage problem, and so getting them to realize that this is a huge issue, that they need to be concerned about, is really hard.

Two very important laws that affect the policy making of water agencies are the Brown Act and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). How successful are these Acts and how would you reform them to improve the policy making process? What else would you do to improve policy making at water agencies? 

I have often felt that if our founding fathers had to follow the Brown Act, we definitely wouldn’t have a Constitution and we may not even have a United States today. As much as I respect both of these laws (CEQA and the Brown Act) and their intent, it does make it very difficult to have open discussions during Board meetings because everybody tends to be a bit more guarded, either because you have the public there or the meeting is being recorded. And so, I think the Brown Act does make discourse among the leadership difficult. That being said, I think that ultimately the right decisions are still made and I don’t believe that it changes the outcomes, it just means that you have got to be very sensitive to the process.

With respect to CEQA, I think that, again, while I completely respect that law and what it was intended to accomplish, I feel that the intent of the law has been misused to serve NIMBYism and groups who are interested in issues other than protecting the environment. The misuse has largely occurred due to the fact that it is so easy to sue under CEQA and to, if nothing else, tie something up in the courts for so long that it can no longer be accomplished because of the added costs of litigation. I think that what CEQA has added to project costs is getting to the brink of prohibitive and, in some cases, can explain why the cost of water has become increasingly high. On the other hand, all of the ways that the law was intended to be used, and the elements that are evaluated in the CEQA process are, in my opinion, the right things.

With regard to improving policy making at water agencies, one of the things that I think is challenging when you are working with elected folks is the diversity of their own knowledge. When you are dealing with a water district that is singularly focused on water, it is easier to deal with policy issues. This is largely due to the fact that there is an expectation that the people who are elected to serve on the Board of the District have a real interest in water and have some technical knowledge. I’ve been fortunate that all of my Board members have a basic understanding of what water is all about and what it means to be providing water. When you have an organization like SCWD, where the policy leaders are City Council members, water may or may not be on any of their agendas and they may have no interest or understanding in water issues, and yet they are being asked to set water policy. I think it’s very difficult and at times conflicting for a Council member to engage in long-term water management decisions, especially because they have term limits and the issue may not be something that drove the member to be on the Council in the first place. Meanwhile, a water district where members do not have term limits would have members in place that are in it for the long run and understand their responsibility to the community with regard to water supply management decisions. Additionally, I think that one of the real challenges of the whole water issue is that there are a number of different ways that water is provided (e.g. private companies, special districts, cities etc.) and water policy can be made. The ways in which these institutions look at water can be inconsistent and problematic for successful collaboration and cooperation amongst managers.