Saturday, March 11, 2006 | Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, is talking over a cup of tea in her spacious Kearny Mesa office. It’s been brewed with the tap water she’s responsible for shepherding to San Diego’s homes.

In addition to managing the 250-employee office and its $450 million annual budget, Stapleton was a key player in negotiations of the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA. That’s the 2003 agreement that diversified San Diego’s water supply, reducing its dependence on the Metropolitan Water District by bringing water from farmers in the Imperial Valley.

She was born in Toledo, Ohio, grew up in Claremont, Calif., and has spent the last 10 years with the authority. She sat down with Voice of San Diego to talk about San Diego’s faucets and the battles she’s fought to keep water coming out of them.

Do you remember the first time you saw the Colorado River? Did you imagine it being such an important part of your life?

I don’t remember the first time. I don’t recall it. But I will tell you that I worked in municipal government prior to coming to the water authority. I knew the significance of water, but I didn’t really understand its preciousness until I moved to the water authority. And, yes, I knew that the Colorado River was one of our water supplies, but I didn’t really understand the significance and the value of the river until I came to the water authority and understood how much we depend on that river.

If you Googled yourself, you’d know that your alter egos have starred in black-and-white films, run for state office in Michigan and run a blog dedicated to preparation for the London Marathon. I’m curious which of those sounds the most appealing and why?

[She laughs.] I’m going to go with the film actress, because it would be a completely different life. I’m often asked when people hear my name if I’m related to the actress, and I am not. But people remember my name because of it being an actress’s name. They also get it confused with Jean Stapleton, and they say “Oh! Archie’s wife!” – from All in the Family.

Part of the QSA included a peace treaty and a promise for lasting peace. Do you feel like you’ve been involved in a war?

I feel that this region did a lot of heavy lifting to diversify our water-supply portfolio and to make great strides in assuring water reliability for this region. Battles come in many different forms. To some extent it was the battle for water reliability that we fought – and continue to fight to this day, which is continuing to make the effort to diversify our water supply portfolio, which increases our water reliability.

How far along are you in the battle?

I think we’re quite a ways along. We started with about 95 percent reliance on one water supply and we now in 2005 are probably in the 80 percent range and are moving by 2020 to have one of the most diverse portfolios, including conservation, recycling, groundwater, local supplies, seawater desalination, canal-lining water, Imperial Irrigation District water and [Metropolitan Water District] imported water.

When the federal government introduces landmark legislation, it’s often given a sexy name – the Clear Skies Initiative, for example. Was Quantification Settlement Agreement the best you could come up with?

[She laughs.] We thought QSA was a quick way to refer to it. We had talked so much about quantifying water rights and water use for the California parties that quantification was one of the key factors. To some extent, I think the water transfer proposal between the water authority and the Imperial Irrigation District was like pulling a piece of thread on a sweater. We wanted to do a simple water transfer – conserve, provide the funding in Imperial County so they could install conversation on the farms. Then that conserved water would be moved to San Diego for our use. It was a very simple concept. But because the agricultural agencies had not been quantified, we found that simple transfer was not possible without a much more complex settlement among all six California Colorado River agencies. And that was the a-ha! as we went through the process.

At times you dealt with an indifferent public on the issue. Would you have liked more recognition of your efforts?

I don’t think that the public is indifferent. Water is the most critical infrastructure commodity for any community. Without water you don’t survive very long. But I also think the public has a right to expect that day in and day out, when they turn on their taps, water will flow. And I think that’s a reasonable expectation. And it’s our fundamental mission to make sure that that water is there and available for them. … Our region – state and federal legislators, the business community – it was just incredible how much support this agency got from our community when we went to do battle for water reliability. We asked many times for their help and assistance, and they came through every time. I don’t think of them as indifferent. When the call for battle was made, they came to our assistance.

How big a source do you see the ocean being for San Diego’s future water needs?

I think it is a critical component, a critical tool in the toolbox to ensure water reliability. It is not a panacea. I do not expect that it will replace all other sources. But it will be a piece of our water supply for the future. … There has been substantial improvement in both the cost effectiveness and the efficiency in the membrane technology, which allows desalination. And they’ve been able to reduce some of the energy costs to desalinate water. However, it is still one of the more expensive water sources. But it is an important piece.

Do you consider yourself a tap water connoisseur?

[She laughs.]Yes, I’m a tap-water connoisseur. I think a lot of people drink bottled water for convenience, not for taste. I understand that when you’re out and you’re grabbing either a Coke or a bottle of water, that’s what people do. But yes, I do. I drink tap water. And we have extremely high-quality water. California has some of the highest quality water in the country – some of the most stringent standards and the most effective treatment processes.

When was the last time you drank bottled water?

The last time I drank it was … I bet it was … I’m trying to think … I think it was when I was out, probably a couple of weeks ago. On the weekend. What I do sometimes is [take] the good bottles of bottled water – there are some bottles that are more sturdy – I take them home, clean them out, fill them with tap water and put them in my refrigerator. I use those bottles over and over. Those are the ones I take to my exercise classes. It works!

– Interview by ROB DAVIS

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