Los Angeles All-Female Board Helps to Build a Water Sustainable Future

Roni Gehlke, Clean Water Magazine Editor, Career Stories, Women in Water

A history-making Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners is diligently building a sustainable future for one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. The City of Los Angeles set a milestone in 2020 with the appointment of its fifth female commissioner, making it the only all-female Board in the city and the first-ever for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Since then, the group has proved themselves more than just the face of inclusiveness in a changing society by doing serious work for their community, helping to set policy, and guiding the agency to create water infrastructure for a sustainable future.

The fifth appointee, Mia Lehrer, joined Board members Cynthia McClain-Hill, Susana Reyes, Jill Banks Barad-Hopkins, and Nicole Neeman Brady. They collectively bring a wealth of experience with varied professional backgrounds, including an attorney and public policy strategist, a retired LADWP sustainability advisor and customer service director for low-income programs, a neighborhood council member, and two women business owners with an expertise in sustainable development and urban design and planning.

The Board of Water and Power Commissioners oversees and sets policy for the nation’s largest municipal utility, which delivers water and electricity to residents and businesses in the city of Los Angeles. Each appointment is a five-year term. In that time, these women will have the opportunity to help the city deal with the ever-evolving issues related to water, including the most pressing problems of drought, aging infrastructure, and building a sustainable water future for the most populous city in the state.


“I’ve always believed that reducing our dependence on purchased, imported water is key to securing a sustainable water future for Los Angeles,” Neeman Brady said. “In fact, prior to serving as a commissioner, I worked for a period of time to increase local water supplies. L.A. has done an amazing job at transforming into a water-efficient city, and LADWP is working to aggressively expand local supplies.”

Even so, Neeman Brady believes that the entire Southern California region will likely always need imported water. There is much the department can do and is doing, expanding the city’s local water resources, including diversifying water recycling, increasing the capture of stormwater runoff, and cleaning up the groundwater basins to protect and restore this vital local water supply.

“While we work to expand our local water supplies, we also have to recognize the critical role played by the L.A. Aqueduct in reducing stress on the State Water Project as well — and ensure it remains a viable part of our water system,” she said.

Other commissioners agree with Neeman Brady’s assessment of the current water situation in the city. The Commission’s Vice President, Reyes, was born and raised in a developing country where she experienced firsthand water scarcity and issues surrounding water quality.

“Serving as a commissioner of the largest municipal utility in the nation has strengthened my resolve to protect communities that are impacted by water inequities,” she said. “Aging infrastructure, severe droughts, floods, economic downturns, and water quality issues stress our water system and exacerbate public health, poverty, and resources.”

She said the good news is that LADWP heavily invests in infrastructure and improvement projects to maintain the reliability of supply and distribution of water for Los Angeles. She believes that addressing water and climate challenges requires innovating new solutions, effective long-term water resiliency programs, and collaboration with customers and communities.

The Board is considering a new program that will set in motion a visionary and transformational initiative to improve further overall water supply resiliency and reliability for Los Angeles. The initiative, dubbed Operation NEXT, plans to help Los Angeles achieve a water supply goal of recycling 100 percent of available purified wastewater from Los Angeles Sanitation’s (LASAN) Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, creating a sustainable new water source for the city.

The project involves LASAN retrofitting Hyperion’s existing conventional treatment with advanced treatment processes to produce up to 217 mgd of purified recycled water by the end of the program — enough to sustain 973,000 homes.

“LADWP’s Operation NEXT and LASAN’s Hyperion 2035 are essentially the opposite sides of the same coin — the coin being the goal for 100% recycling out of Hyperion,” Reyes said. “One side represents inside the Hyperion fence line (LASAN’s Hyperion 2035). The other is outside the fence line (LADWP’s Operation NEXT), moving the water to where we have demands to drink it down.”

Reyes said LASAN is integral to the success of Operation NEXT. LADWP is working closely with LASAN staff and management to ensure the milestones of each program align. As advanced treated water is produced, it will need a destination ready to take it. The pipe/conveyance infrastructure must be in the ground, prepared to take water from Hyperion.

“As an LADWP commissioner, I believe that this long-term investment will make the city more resilient to water-related challenges,” Reyes said. “As L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti stated during his recent tour of water resources and projects, ‘We won’t be drought-free, but I do believe we’ll be drought-resilient.’”

Commissioner Neeman Brady explains that some version of Operation NEXT has existed over the last two decades.

“It always seemed like an ambitious goal. The driver for all of our local water supply initiatives — conservation, recycled water, stormwater, and groundwater — has been the reduction, over time, in our imported supplies,” she said. “Over time, the L.A. Aqueduct water supply has been increasingly reallocated to Owens Valley environmental enhancements and mitigation. LADWP’s available L.A. Aqueduct supplies have been reduced by approximately half since 1992, leaving approximately half of the city’s historical L.A. Aqueduct supplies in the Mono Basin and Owens Valley.”

Neeman Brady said the effects of climate change have exposed vulnerabilities in our traditional supplies. So much water goes to the ocean from the Hyperion plant that it’s an obvious opportunity for local water supply development.

Drought will always be one of the number one issues that LADWP will face. Neeman Brady said that water use in Los Angeles has decreased by more than 30% over the past 15 years.

“Angelenos are using less water today than we did 50 years ago despite a population increase of a million people, and while we have seen a minor increase in demands resulting from the multiple dry years, our extensive conservation programs continue to maintain some of the lowest per capita water use numbers in the state,” Neeman Brady said. “Thanks to the foresight of our city leaders, along with the support of our community, L.A. has had a recycled water program in place for over 40 years — and the investments we’ve made thus far are helping us mitigate the drought conditions that exist today.”

Those efforts in water recycling have allowed Los Angeles to build a vast distribution network for non-potable water that currently supplies more than 150 customers, including golf courses, parks, industrial facilities, and city-owned properties. Neeman Brady said that the investment has served the city well, with 2021 marking the highest use of recycled water in its history.

However, despite that success, and in addition to Operation NEXT, she said that LADWP is currently working to further expand the use of recycled water by continuing to invest in new infrastructure and establishing partnerships with neighboring agencies.

“Further, we anticipate the city’s use of non-potable recycled water to continue to increase by over 50% in the next five years. This will not only help the city become more water resilient, but it will also help us deal with the immediate drought conditions that affect us today.”