Brown and Caldwell Senior Vice President Cindy Paulson recently talked with Halla Razak, director of Public Utilities for San Diego, about her exciting first 90 days on the job and why the city's unique reuse program Pure Water makes all the sense in the world, both financially and environmentally.

JUNE 17, 2014

You've been a leader in the San Diego water industry for much of your career. How did you get your start?
One of the things I always cared about, even early on, was public service. I always felt that the best way to spend my time and energy is to improve my community and serve the public. So when I graduated, I immediately applied for employment with the City of San Diego.

Two weeks later, I called and said, "OK, when do I start?" They told me I'd been placed on a list and would be contacted, that there was a whole process. I was impatient, so I dressed up, got my resume and walked to City Hall. I arrived at the Engineering Department counter and requested to talk to the senior engineer. The senior engineer knew that I was not going to leave, that I was there to work. So he gave me a task matching soils reports to old maps. That was my foot in the door. I remember putting in long hours working on those maps, and three weeks later they offered me a full-time job.

Now that you've been in your new position for a few months, what have you found to be most exciting?
What has really impressed me the most so far is the caliber of employees and professionalism in the department. It's really remarkable. Recently, the city and the department have experienced quite a bit of change but a solid organizational structure is in place. It has been thrilling to join this team, and I have been working really hard. It's been exciting.

You've played the role of wholesaler at the San Diego County Water Authority and now retailer at the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department. What is your perspective on how best to work together on water policy issues for the benefit of all?
I believe that it's very beneficial to have had the experience in both places because it helps me understand each agency's perspective on issues. In both agencies, I have close relationships and I believe I've established credibility.

My loyalty is to the City of San Diego ratepayers. And it is in the interest of the San Diego ratepayer that our wholesaler, the San Diego County Water Authority, thrive because it is the supplier of our imported water. I fully understand the big picture and the dynamics involved. Being on the other side of the table, literally speaking, seeing things from a different perspective, has been really enlightening.

Ensuring a diverse water supply portfolio is critical to California's future, so tell us what the City of San Diego is doing on that front.
About 80 to 85 percent of the City's water is imported. The City of San Diego has been working hard at diversifying its water supply portfolio. We've been working on conservation, we've looked at developing groundwater supplies, and we continue to work on water reclamation.

Pure Water is what we have branded our long-term project for indirect potable reuse, and it is very attractive in many ways. It will help us continue operating Point Loma with advanced primary treatment. We hope to amend the Clean Water Act and introduce secondary equivalency. Achieving this revision to the Clean Water Act will keep us from having to apply for a waiver from the EPA every five years.

By the end of 2035, we hope that one-third of our water supply will be from Pure Water. So we're working on developing 83 million gallons per day in the coming 20 years. We will implement this project in phases to minimize the impact on ratepayers, and allow the direct potable reuse regulations to mature so that we can take advantage of direct potable reuse in subsequent phases.

Are there additional benefits of Pure Water?
In 20 years, the cost savings to the water and wastewater ratepayer from Pure Water is a quarter of a billion dollars. These savings will continue increasing into the future because the imported water costs will increase.

This program will produce a locally controlled, reliable, climate change-proof and drought-proof water supply. Right now we are at the mercy of what might be happening on the Colorado River, the Bay Delta, and the storage at the San Diego County Water Authority. We're all coordinating and communicating very well with each other, but all of these water sources are dependent on climate. If we can take the water we already have here and reuse it, it's a win-win-win whichever way you look at it.

How will the pending legislation on potable reuse impact the city's plans?
We hope that indirect potable reuse regulations will be in place by the end of 2016 and direct potable regulations soon thereafter. We've been really active in working with the state committee to make the regulations workable. San Diego is working hard to assist the state's efforts.

What has been the reaction so far, from the public and the city officials?
The Mayor and City Council are supportive of Pure Water. As far as the public, we've done outreach and polling and we're pleased that the general public opinion is positive. But we're not taking anything for granted. We have 1.4 million customers in San Diego, so while we've brought a lot of people along, we still have a lot of work ahead of us and are continuing our outreach and education efforts. There are communities within the population of San Diego that we need to reach out to in a meaningful way, to get their input and their buy-in.

We have the support of the environmental community, which has been working with the City of San Diego for a long time to get us to this point. Now that we are here, we're really excited to continue that partnership and implement the project.

In addition to the Pure Water project, what do you anticipate as being your other main focus areas in the next few years?
This is one program in a large department. We have one of the largest and most complicated water and wastewater systems in the nation. Our infrastructure, which is aging like everyone else's, needs substantial work and investment.

Like many agencies, we're facing a loss of institutional knowledge as employees retire, so we'll have to fill that void. And, I'm also working to maintain pride in public service and employment with the Public Utilities Department. We are building a new brand that has four pillars: quality, value, reliability, and customer service.

Looking forward, what is your vision for San Diego Public Utilities and what would you most like to accomplish while in your leadership here?
One of my strongest passions is to be part of an efficient and effective organization, and in this case it's a pretty large organization. I want to make sure every dollar that the ratepayer pays is a dollar that is well managed and is absolutely necessary. I am really passionate about this to my core. I want each employee to think about how every minute of their day and every decision they make affects the ratepayer.

We have been entrusted by the public to do this work so we need to carry that trust within us. I knew that this was going to be exciting and I also knew that it was going to be extremely difficult, but the excitement is certainly outweighing the difficulty.

 


Name: Halla Razak

Title: Director of the Public Utilities Department for the City of San Diego

Razak is responsible for both the daily operation of the city's water, wastewater and regional wastewater sub-system as well as planning to ensure the future reliability of these services. These city systems provide water, recycled water and wastewater services to more than 1.3 million customers. The regional wastewater system has sufficient capacity to accommodate a regional population in excess of 2.5 million. The wastewater system covers approximately 450 square miles with a population of more than 2.2 million. Under her leadership, the Public Utilities Department is developing a unique water reuse program that will help increase water supply reliability for the future of San Diego while also ensuring environmental protection for the ocean environment.

Background: Prior to rejoining the City of San Diego, Razak worked for eight years as the Colorado River Program Director for the San Diego County Water Authority and 18 years prior to that as Chief Deputy Director for the City of San Diego's Engineering and Capital Projects Department.

Razak holds a bachelor's of science degree in civil engineering from the University of Dayton, Ohio, and a master's degree in engineering from San Diego State University.

She lives in San Diego with her husband, Nagy, and children Lara and Rami.



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