Rosemary Menard’s ‘Getting to Yes’ Strategy in Santa Cruz

Rosemary Menard, Water Director for the City of Santa Cruz, California, is the 2022 Water Finance & Management Award Winner

As we know, utility work is multifaceted. Just as every water utility needs a dedicated team of operators, lab technicians and field crews, it also doesn’t hurt to have a leader like Rosemary Menard who specializes in a different end of the business – interfacing with the local government and community to put projects in a position for success.

It’s a skill perhaps even more critical in drought-stricken California, where Menard has served as water director for the City of Santa Cruz since 2014. In this position, she has helped guide the Santa Cruz Water Department through multiple droughts, wildfires, repair and replacement of aging infrastructure, a pending treatment plant upgrade, meter replacements and a plan to supplement the city’s water supply and prepare for the ongoing effects of climate change.

In both 2016 and 2021, Menard led the implementation of Long-Range Financial Plans for capital reinvestment to address many of the above items on the agenda. Each plan included five-year water rate increase schedules and Menard was unanimous in getting city council support. The department has also implemented new fees to offset mandatory water use curtailments in Santa Cruz due to the drought.

They are just a few examples of Menard’s “getting to yes” approach that she preaches when noting the public policy rigors that can often hamper needed projects and initiatives for utilities.

“I’ve always focused on how to design the process in such a way that you don’t get the answer you don’t want,” she says.

A veteran of the water infrastructure sector, Menard has more than 40 years of experience, with more than 30 of those years as a water utility executive in three states.

She’s not someone who comes from a background in engineering or law. Indeed, Menard’s specialty is in public policy and interfacing with city council, local government and the community to drive project and rate approvals with public support. She was even briefly appointed interim city manager in Santa Cruz in 2021 while the city council conducted a search for a permanent manager, and Menard was able to step into the role and provide effective leadership.

For her distinguished career in water and leadership on a variety of fronts, Menard is this year’s Water Finance & Management Award winner.

Early Career

Menard grew up in the San Francisco Bay area but went to college at the University of Washington in Seattle. After putting herself through college, she worked at a biochemistry lab which led her to policy-focused work around recombinant DNA technology. The policy-related areas of the research piqued her interest and, by the early 1980s, she decided to attend the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington (now called Evans School of Public Policy & Governance), entering a program that focused on public policy related to science and technology.

To support herself, Menard landed a job interning for a Seattle city councilmember. That councilmember happened to be the chair of the council’s utilities and transportation committee, and as part of her job, Menard was assigned to review the budget proposal for Seattle Water Department (now Seattle Public Utilities).

After some time reviewing the budget, capital improvement program and coordinating with Seattle Water staff, she was encouraged to apply for a job as the utility’s budget coordinator.

“Thank God, I didn’t get it,” she recalls jokingly. “It was not a good fit for the kind of person I am and the kind of work I was interested in.” But after being informed she didn’t get the job, the director of the customer service department at Seattle Water called 15 minutes later and encouraged her to apply for a position as supervisor of its recently created water conservation department, which she landed. Menard says the position appealed to her because she was able to approach conservation as a resource and not just a public relations program, giving her the opportunity to bring the technical, policy and planning aspects together, setting the stage for her approach to water and utility management throughout her career.

“That was the beginning of a theme of my career, which has been focusing not so much on the day-to-day operations of the utility, but more on the planning, strategic and long-term challenges that we need to be ready for,” she says.

At Seattle Water, Menard would go on to serve in several leadership roles including as environmental planning manager, water quality director – for which she dealt with federal regulatory issues and compliance – and as director of water resources and water quality.

“One thing about Rosemary is that she was a supreme communicator even back in those days,” says Scott Haskins, a longtime industry consultant who spent more than 30 years at Seattle Public Utilities, notably as deputy director. Haskins first hired Menard as an intern with Seattle Water and recalls her unique approach to the position at a time when utilities were a bit more under the radar and not very publicly visible.

“She was kind of the opposite,” Haskins says. “She welcomed the diversity of the public engagement process and wanted to help advance the industry, the region she was participating in and set real policy direction. She would relish public meetings, which I think was a little ahead of her time.”

Following Seattle Water, Menard took a job in 1995 at the City of Portland Water Bureau. There, she served in senior leadership positions for 11 years culminating in her role as director of operations and maintenance. One initiative she led was creating a business and industry-supported groundwater protection program for the utility’s 100 million gallons per day (mgd) backup groundwater source near the Columbia River.

In 2007, she accepted the position of director of the Washoe County Department of Water Resources in Reno, Nevada. There, Menard further expanded her expertise into groundwater management, water rights issues and mitigating the impacts of municipal pumping on domestic wells. She also helped lead efforts to consolidate the Washoe County Department of Water Resources with the Truckee Meadows Water Authority and the South Truckee Meadows General Improvement District. The consolidation was done as a way to improve management of water resources, improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Santa Cruz

Menard was hired in 2014 as water director for the City of Santa Cruz. Upon her arrival, which came in the middle of the 2011-2017 California drought, the city was moving on from a proposed 2.5 mgd seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant that lacked public support. The proposal was a joint effort with the nearby Soquel Creek Water District to increase supply control seawater intrusion. Plans for the project were shelved, and under Menard’s leadership, the city is instead pursuing a comprehensive water supply augmentation strategy.

Santa Cruz County is unique in that it is one of a few counties in California that does not receive any water from outside the county. Its supply is sourced locally from surface water in rivers and creeks, primarily the San Lorenzo River, as well as from groundwater pumped from aquifers. These groundwater basins are replenished by rainwater. It also has water storage provided by the Loch Lomond Reservoir, which can hold about a year’s worth of water usage by the city and its neighbors.

With Menard at the helm, Santa Cruz has reduced demand by 30 percent and is working toward incremental implementation of supply augmentation initiatives in the coming years that will: Give the city more flexibility to move and store water from existing sources; develop groundwater storage near Capitola to the east and Scotts Valley to the north; build new infrastructure to establish two-way transport to storage areas; and set new water sharing agreements with adjacent agencies. 

In addition to its water supply and resilience goals, Santa Cruz has also undertaken a number of projects to update critical infrastructure and put in place a plan to fund it.

In 2016, Menard led the implementation a Long-Range Financial Plan for a capital reinvestment program that included a five-year water rate increase schedule. The plan supported capital funding for $150 million in rehabilitation and replacement projects. The plan was updated in 2021 on another five-year rate increase schedule, providing an additional $271 million in project funding. Menard received unanimous city council support for the increases.

The department implemented a rate stabilization fee to close a revenue gap caused by reduced water use by nonresidential customers during FY 2020-21 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The department has also installed a drought cost recovery fee to offset mandatory water use curtailments during droughts.

One of the notable infrastructure projects the city is working on is the modernization of its Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant that was commissioned in 1960 and hasn’t undergone any major updates since the 1980s.

The city also implemented a meter replacement program in response to under-reporting drive-by meters that were resulting in revenue loss and increased maintenance costs. The city hired Jacobs to perform a feasibility study, which quantified the total benefits to Santa Cruz will exceed the cost of AMI by more than $10 million. The city chose to go with Badger Meter to supply the new AMI system including its Orion cellular LTE endpoints that use existing cellular infrastructure to achieve two-way communication of meter reading data. The benefits over the life of the project include: $6.5 million in avoided labor costs; $3 million in improved meter registration; $1 million in reduced overtime, seasonal labor and vehicle costs; and improved customer service, leak detection and rate setting analysis.

Public Support

Menard talks about the importance of outside-in thinking – that is, putting herself in the position of the community and the average water user who may have only some or even no interest in their water use. One way the city has brought attention to this is through public awareness campaigns including window decals displayed on the offices of the water department that convey the value of water.

She says bringing the community along and making the effort to be transparent about how essential water is to everyday life helps contribute to credibility and organizational success.

“The leadership’s role in all of that, I think, is to recognize that as much as we all get geeked out on all this technical stuff, we really can’t do anything unless we have the community’s support,” she says. You can’t do anything else until you can get the yes.”

Another part of Menard’s philosophy, she says, is a constant effort to understand why utilities struggle so much to get things done, whether its rate increases, a big project, or people simply having confidence in their water.

“We think that because we know what the right things are to do, that people ought to have confidence in us,” she says. “But we’ve gone through cycles where confidence in government has not always been so strong.

“We have a lot of really great technical work that is done in [this industry] that is thoughtful and visionary,” she says. “But I always found something was missing, and it was the ‘getting to yes’ part. And what are the characteristics of that? It’s political support, community support and it’s about people having enough understanding and knowledge of your work that they’re willing to support you and not get in your way.”

One of the reasons Menard has been able to excel in moving projects forward is the trust she’s earned from city council, says State Sen. John Laird of California’s Senate District 17, a frequent collaborator to Menard during her time in Santa Cruz on a range of policy issues. Laird represents California’s District 17 containing Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties in their entirety, as well as portions of Monterey and Santa Clara counties. 

“She had to do a public process on future water supply after the very contentious process over the desalination plant was stopped,” says Sen. Laird, who also served as mayor of Santa Cruz for two terms in the 1980s. “There were times at the beginning when some of the advocates were blasting her. But after a while, my sense was, they trusted her. Her skill level of reaching out to people with different opinions and working with them really showed during that period.

“You are dealing with big dissentions a lot of times. She has done well in that environment, because she, on a fact-based basis, will really try to get people to understand that you have to have a water future here.”

As for what’s next for Menard, she says she still gets inspired by the energy, optimism and the shared appreciation she and her colleagues have of supplying safe drinking water to the community.

“Those are things that generate the kind of perseverance, tenacity and willingness to go through the hard times to do what needs to be done,” she says. “These are things that are really critical and we have it in spades in this business.

“What water people do – drinking water people in particular, but all water people – they do something that matters every single day.”

Andrew Farr is the managing editor of Water Finance & Management, published by Benjamin Media in the Brecksville, Ohio. He has covered the water sector in North America for 10 years and also covers the North American trenchless construction industry for sister publication Trenchless Technology.

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