Water Authority General Manager Maureen A. Stapleton Retires after 23 Years

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Water Authority General Manager Maureen A. Stapleton Retires after 23 Years
With Stapleton at the helm, agency transformed San Diego County’s water supply

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February 20, 2019

Maureen A. Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, informed the agency’s Board of Directors today of her decision to retire from the agency.

“The positive impact of Maureen’s leadership of the Water Authority and management of this region’s water supply cannot be overstated,” said Jim Madaffer, chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors. “She has also been an important leader in our civic affairs for three decades and has dedicated countless hours to the betterment of our entire region. She will be greatly missed.”

Madaffer said that Sandy Kerl, the agency’s deputy general manager, will serve as acting general manager while the Water Authority Board of Directors conducts a search for its next general manager. Kerl was appointed deputy general manager in November 2009, after a lengthy career with the City of La Mesa, where she served as city manager from 2003 to 2009.

During Stapleton’s tenure leading the region’s water wholesale agency, she led a successful, multi-decade strategy to diversify and improve the reliability of San Diego County’s water supply, which now supports a $220 billion economy and the quality of life of 3.3 million people. The Stapleton era also saw the greatest investment in large-scale regional water infrastructure in San Diego County history. 

“The success of the Water Authority over the past two decades is testament to the vision of the Board of Directors, the passionate commitment and dedication of the Water Authority’s staff and management team, the partnership we forged with our 24 member agencies, and the unwavering support of the San Diego region’s civic leaders,” Stapleton said. “I am immensely proud of our shared accomplishments, and I will greatly miss my Water Authority colleagues and esprit de corps we shared carrying out the Water Authority’s mission to provide our region with a safe and reliable water supply.”

The highlight of Stapleton’s career at the Water Authority was the 2003 Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement, and its implementation over the 16 years since that historic accord was signed in October 2003. 

The cornerstone of the QSA is the San Diego County Water Authority-Imperial Irrigation District water conservation-and-transfer agreement, under which the Water Authority will receive 200,000 acre-feet of water annually from IID to the Water Authority for up to 75 years. It is the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in U.S. history. The Water Authority also secured an additional 77,700 acre-feet annually for 110 years through the lining of the All- American and Coachella canals in the Imperial Valley. Since 2003, QSA transfers have provided the San Diego region with 2 million acre-feet of water, and this year they will account for approximately 40 percent of the region’s water supply. Over the life of the agreements, the Water Authority will receive up to 21.4 million acre-feet of highly reliable water. 

Former Water Authority Board Chair Mark Watton, who led the search for the agency’s general manager in 1995 when Stapleton was hired, called her “the right leader, at the right time for the tremendous challenges our region faced.”

“We were at a critical juncture in the Water Authority’s history,” Watton said. “We had just emerged from the deepest water supply shortages our community experienced in the 20th Century. And, we had announced a tentative water transfer deal with the Imperial Irrigation District only a few months earlier. 

“We knew getting that landmark deal done would take a smart, tenacious and dedicated leader,” Watton said. “We got that, and a whole lot more, in Maureen Stapleton.”

Mike Madigan, who chaired the Water Authority Board during the 1991-1992 supply cutbacks, put the challenges Stapleton and her staff faced into historical perspective. In 1991, the agency’s sole supplier of water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, cut the San Diego region’s supplies by 31 percent, and even adopted 50-percent cutbacks, he said.

“That was the region’s wake-up call,” Madigan said. “We had virtually all of our eggs in one basket, and the bottom of the basket fell out. The Board knew we had to diversify our water supply. And, while you can diversify your investment portfolio with a couple of hours of research and a few clicks of your mouse, diversifying the water supply for one of the largest metropolitan regions in the country would take decades, require billions of dollars of ratepayer investment, and face untold roadblocks.

“We knew it would also take extraordinary leadership, tenacity and perseverance to accomplish that mission, and we were fortunate to find all of those qualities in Maureen Stapleton, her leadership team and the staff of the Water Authority,” Madigan said.

Then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, heralded Stapleton’s leadership over eight years of protracted QSA negotiations involving numerous California water agencies, the seven Colorado River basin states, the State of California and the U.S. Department of the Interior that culminated in a signing ceremony atop Hoover Dam in 2003.

“Thanks to the patience, perseverance and hard work of their leaders, including Maureen Stapleton and her staff at the San Diego County Water Authority… San Diego has secured a reliable supply of additional water to help meet the community’s vital needs for decades to come,” Norton wrote in a 2003 commentary for The San Diego Union-Tribune. “The future of San Diego and the Colorado River Basin is made more secure by this addition to the Law of the River.”

Under Stapleton, the Water Authority invested more than $3.5 billion in new capital facilities to serve the region, including $1.5 billion in projects that comprised the agency’s Emergency & Carryover Storage Project, a collection of new and expanded dams, reservoirs, pump stations, tunnel and pipelines designed to provide between two and six months of emergency water supply – stored within the region – following a catastrophic event, such as an earthquake, that would cut off or severely curtail the delivery of imported water into San Diego County. Before the E&CSP was completed, some communities in the county would have been without water service in as few as three days following such a catastrophic event.

Among the projects planned, built and placed into operation by the Water Authority over the past two decades:

  • In 2003, Olivenhain Dam was the first major new dam built in San Diego in more than 50 years. At 318 feet, it was the tallest roller-compacted concrete dam at the time.
  • In 2008, the Twin Oaks Valley Water Treatment Plant north of San Marcos was the largest submerged membrane water treatment plant in the world when it was commissioned.
  • In 2011, the San Vicente Tunnel and Pipeline Project – a 11-mile long, 12-foot diameter tunnel with an 8-1/2-foot diameter pipeline – connected the Water Authority’s First and Second Aqueducts.
  • In 2012, the Lake Hodges Hydropower Facility, started serving the dual purposes of connecting the lake to the Water Authority’s aqueduct system and generating 40 megawatts of clean electricity.
  • In 2014, the San Vicente Dam Raise Project, the tallest dam-raise project in U.S. history,  expanded the reservoir’s capacity from 90,000 acre-feet to 247,663 acre-feet.
  • In 2015, the $1 billion Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, distribution pipeline and related facilities started commercial operations as the largest seawater desalination project in North America.
  • The ongoing, innovative Water Authority Asset Management Program, which includes the agency’s pioneering Pipeline Relining Project, a multi-year project to reline 80 miles of large-diameter prestressed concrete cylinder pipelines with new steel liners, preventing failure of the pipelines and extending their useful lifespans by 75 years or more. 

The Water Authority’s work during Stapleton’s more than two decades of leadership has received countless major awards and recognitions. Among them:

  • The 2017 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award from the American Society of Civil Engineering for the Water Authority’s Emergency & Carryover Storage Project. The Opal, as it is known in the industry, is the most prestigious civil engineering award in the world. Other finalists for the award were: One World Trade Center in New York City; Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India; Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in New Haven, Conn.; and the Union Station to Oak Cliff Streetcar Project in Dallas, Texas. 
  • The 2017 Clair A. Hill Water Agency Award for Excellence in water resources management from the Association of California Water Agencies.
  • The 2016 Global Water Intelligence Desalination Plant of the Year, the 2016 San Diego Taxpayers Association’s Grand Golden Watchdog Award, and the 2012 Bond Deal of the Year Award from Bond Buyer for the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant.
  • The 2013 Platinum Award for Utility Excellence from the American Water Works Association.

Effective and efficient management of the agency is frequently cited as a key factor in the Water Authority’s high, investment-grade credit ratings: AAA from Standard & Poor’s; AA+ from Fitch Ratings; and Aa2 from Moody’s.

Stapleton’s retirement caps more than 40 years in public service. Before her appointment as general manager in December 1995, Stapleton served nine years at the City of San Diego, rising to assistant city manager. Prior to San Diego, she was assistant city manager for Claremont, Calif.

Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, now President and Chief Executive Officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, called Stapleton “instrumental in the growth and development of our region. Under Maureen’s leadership, the Water Authority has helped propel San Diego’s economy by ensuring our region has a diversified, highly reliable water supply – and the infrastructure system needed to produce and treat water, store it, and deliver it to millions of San Diegans.”

Stapleton has been a fixture in the San Diego civic community for decades. She is a member of Board of Directors the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. She also serves on the board of directors of Water for People, an international organization that promotes the development of drinking water and sanitation services in developing countries worldwide.

Stapleton has also served on: the board of directors of United Way of San Diego County, where she was chair from 2000-2001; Combined Health Agencies of San Diego County; Scripps Health Board of Directors, including service as chair; Hans and Margaret Doe Foundation Board of Trustees; and, CEO Business Roundtable. She has also been a member of San Diego Downtown Rotary 33.

Among other awards and recognitions, Stapleton was the recipient of: the 2004 Regional Unity Award from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce “for ensuring a reliable water supply for Southern California;” the 2010 Diogenes Award from Public Relations Society of America, San Diego Chapter; the 2004 Headliner of the Year Award from the San Diego Press Club “for securing San Diego’s water future;” and the 2000 Association of California Water Agencies Excellence in Water Leadership Award from the Association of California Water Agencies.

On February 13, 2019, the American Water Works Association selected Stapleton for Honorary Membership in the association “in recognition of her more than 20 years of dedicated, innovative leadership that has left a significant, indelible and positive impact on local, state, national and international water supply reliability efforts.”

Stapleton’s husband, Frank Gehrke, retired in December 2018 as the chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources.