New general manager dives into work at water district

SFID General Manager Al Lau

Albert Lau has spent his entire professional career of more than two decades in the water industry, focused on issues related to bringing safe, affordable drinking water to the public.

“I got the water bug in college,” said Lau, 51, a resident of Olivenhain, who earned an undergraduate degree in civil engineering, and water resources and treatment, at Cal Poly Pomona. He later earned graduate degrees in engineering and business at the University of Colorado and San Diego State University, respectively.

A former longtime official with the Padre Dam Municipal Water District in East County, Lau is now about six months into his new job as general manager of the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which provides water to residents and businesses in Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch. Lau succeeded Michael Bardin, who served as Santa Fe’s general manager for 14 years.

Making the decision to leave Padre Dam after 18 years, where he was director of engineering and planning, was tough, said Lau, but it offered him the opportunity to serve residents of the community he calls home.

“When this opportunity came up, there was a potential for me to do that,” Lau said, while continuing to work in a field he is passionate about. “Everything aligned really well in terms of what I like to do.”

In his new role, Lau oversees an organization with 47 employees and an annual budget of $43 million.

As well as taking on increased responsibilities in a water district that covers more than 10,000 acres and has a population of nearly 20,000 residents, the Santa Fe job offered relief from a daily commute between Encinitas and Santee. These days, said Lau, he doesn’t even have to get on the freeway to get to work.

“That’s a huge perk,” he said.

At Padre Dam, Lau oversaw a program involving several water agencies that seeks to increase the East County’s water supply by 25 to 30 percent by converting wastewater to drinking water, through a series of steps involve a high degree of treatment, and the eventual mixing of the treated water with water in a reservoir. Such a program is called “potable reuse” in the water industry.

This spring, Santa Fe completed a study of the feasibility of a potable reuse program to be carried out in conjunction with neighboring water districts,.

The study found that the project is technically feasible, and would pass muster with regulators, said Lau, but it also determined that the cost of the water would be nearly double what the district is paying for water from its wholesaler, the San Diego County Water Authority.

Such a project might make more financial sense in the future, when rising water costs bring the cost of the repurposed water closer to what the district is paying for water from other sources, Lau said. Santa Fe is also looking at bringing in more water agencies to improve the economies of scale for a potable reuse program.

The district is also grappling with the controversial task of increasing water rates and potentially restructuring how it charges its customers. A proposed rate plan that would have increased rates by 3 percent annually for three years was voted down by the district’s board of directors in December 2018. Also in December 2018, the Rancho Santa Fe Association filed a lawsuit against the water district over its rate structure, claiming its members were being treated unfairly.

The board has been holding a series of workshops on the rate issue, and will likely consider a new proposed rate plan early next year, Lau said.

The challenge, said Lau, is to find a rate structure that is fair to all district residents, whether they live on a small parcel in Solana Beach or a large estate in Rancho Santa Fe.

“It’s a fascinating puzzle to try to solve,” Lau said.

Looking toward the future, Lau said the district will have to grapple with such issues as maintaining reliable, affordable sources of water, in the face of industry shifts brought on by an increasing number of retirements of experienced staff, as well as the effects of climate change, which are bringing both wetter weather some years, and longer dry periods to California.

“You’re going to see more of the extremes,” Lau said.

When he’s not at work, Lau enjoys going on hikes with his wife, Amanda, a psychologist in private practice, and the couple’s two Boston terriers. He also likes to work on his golf game.