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Water Works: Joone Lopez on the Next Generation of Water Leaders

As part of our “Water Works” series, we talk to Joone Lopez, general manager of Moulton Niguel Water District, about the changing face of the water industry and challenging the status quo.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A golfer passes succulents and other drought-resistant plants at the El Niguel Country Club in Laguna Niguel, Calif.Gregory Bull, AP

If there’s anything Joone Lopez is proud of, it’s her 120 coworkers at the Moulton Niguel Water District. “I always say, ‘I have the best,’ because I believe it,” she told Water Deeply.

Lopez is the general manager of Moulton Niguel Water District, which provides water, wastewater and recycled water services to more than 170,000 people in Orange County. She has made it her mission to bring young talent on board and help work toward more collaborative relationships in the California water world.

Lopez recently spoke with Water Deeply as part of “Water Works,” our interview series with California’s top water managers.

Water Deeply: What does your day to day as the general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District look like?

Joone Lopez: I have a lot of priorities as a manager, but the people always come first. I try to hire the best in the business. What sets our agency apart is that we have a lot of incredibly talented millennials. There are so many bright, young people out there and I try to create space and opportunity for them to become the next group of leaders that will move us forward as an industry. Times are changing, and I’m mindful about developing future leadership.

It seems like I do a lot of talking throughout the day. Internally, getting to know our employees, understanding their daily needs and challenges, is really important to me. I have a great staff that does all of the legwork, and my job is to make sure that they have the support and guidance that they need.

There are also a lot of external meetings. As a public agency providing critical resources, I want to make sure that we are part of the community that we serve. Building a relationship with the public, reporters and stakeholders like the state, the city and civic organizations, is really important, especially when you have to go through tough times or have to communicate particular initiatives. I want to make sure that we progress through these unknown times and some of these uncharted areas while maintaining relationships all around. It’s easy to fall into fear of the unknown, but we have to be open-minded and flexible. Going to different parts of California and working in different communities, I’ve learned that when it comes to water, everyone is right. It’s not about proving who’s right or wrong, but trying to see where there could be some commonalities and alignments.

Water Deeply: Has the drought shifted your organization’s priorities and approach?

Lopez: Throughout California, the drought has forced the industry to ramp up communication to the public. We communicated to the public why there were reduction targets, why we made certain investments and efforts, and why we need to do more going forward, really making people understand how they can do their part. Utilities over the years have kind of flown under the radar. We did a solid job, turned on the tap, and there wasn’t an urgent need to be out there. That has changed. There’s more public accountability, and I think that’s very healthy. We’re providing a critical service and the more eyes that look into it and see what we can do different, the better.

The level of coordination, from the state to the regional level, has changed, too. The drought has definitely challenged the silo mentality. Agencies can no longer just worry about their own service area. Water affects all communities and we should care about everyone.

The drought has also opened up a new approach, because everyone is looking for ways to figure this thing out. It facilitated change and innovation, unlike during any other time that I’ve seen.

Water Deeply: What do you see as California’s biggest water challenge at the moment?

Lopez: The biggest water challenge is [the] status quo. We have to be much more proactive and agile. If you wait until something is broken, it’s too late. Trying to solve new, bigger problems with old tactics just isn’t effective. Being comfortable embracing change, embracing trying things, recognizing that they may not always work, being able to readjust, might really move us forward.

The status quo also sometimes prevents us from having good relationships. There’s a lot of the emotional and historic baggage undermining trust in the industry, and people go to their corners. It’s not really the lack of ideas and intelligence in our industry that keep us from having meaningful solutions. A lot of the time, the biggest water issues get bogged down because of history and personality.

Water Deeply: What’s your biggest challenge in the year ahead?

Lopez: Making sure that we continue to have the best people and expanding what we do to have a much more meaningful impact regionally and even statewide. Making sure that we, in addition to communicating well, work toward a cooperative spirit and a collaborative discussion with all the different stakeholders, rather than creating an antagonistic dialogue about what the state should and shouldn’t do. There’s nothing when I look out that causes me to lose sleep. I think everything is always possible, so I get excited about it.

Water Deeply: Before entering the water industry, you worked as a police officer in Pasadena. Are there any lessons from that experience you find useful in your work today?

Lopez: While both jobs may sound very different, they’re both about public service and working with people from all backgrounds, all kinds of belief systems, all kinds of income levels. You really have to love people, and I do. Trying to make decisions and create outcomes that are peaceful and right, those are things that I see as very common in both industries.

A lot of times in law enforcement, you’re thrown into a situation where you have very little or no information, but you have to make a decision. Recognizing that some decisions may work and some don’t, but being able to make some of those decisions without having everything in place, has also helped in water. When you’re dealing with public service, if you wait until all of the information is collected and everything’s verified, you’re too late.

When you’re a police officer, you go into the homes and lives of people that you normally would never talk to and those raw moments give you an appreciation of what it’s like to be in their shoes and to have an understanding and appreciation for what they are going through. That kind of awareness is also important in water, because whether you are local or state or urban or in ag, you might not know the other’s full story. It can be easy to hear stuff and read stuff and jump to conclusions. It gives you a moment of pause and a great humility because you realize how little you know and how small you are in the scheme of things.

Finally, one of the things that I do a lot when we talk about water decisions, and people get really worked up, or angry even, is to remind everyone that no one’s going to die. Compared to having to make decisions that could result in life and death, this is all workable. So let’s all take a collective breath, calm down and just talk through it.

More in the “Water Works” series:

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