Rancho Santa Fe water district general manager reflects on challenges, accomplishments after a decade on the job


By Joe Tash

Mike Bardin’s job is to make sure that when Santa Fe Irrigation District customers turn on their taps, clean, safe drinking water flows out.

As the district’s general manager for the past decade, Bardin has dealt with a changing landscape in the water industry, from rising rates, to supply restrictions, to droughts. Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the lack of rainfall throughout the state and urged residents to cut down on their water use.

Now in his 10th year on the job, Bardin said San Diego County is in relatively good shape to handle a dry winter due to investments in water storage capacity in recent years, along with reductions in water use by customers. Although people in Northern California already face water-use restrictions, he said he doesn’t foresee such measures for residents of the Santa Fe district this summer, which includes Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch.

That doesn’t mean people can relax their vigilance when it comes to conserving water. “It’s almost a civic duty to be efficient with the use of water,” said Bardin, 55, a New York native who moved to California in 1980.

Locally, the lack of rainfall means the Santa Fe district has had to rely more on “imported” water purchased from the San Diego County Water Authority, which costs more than local water stored in Lake Hodges. As a result, the district will pull $1.7 million from reserves this year to cover the increased expense, since no rate increase was imposed on customers for 2014.

Still, Bardin expects the long-term trend of rising water costs to continue in the future. “There’s no two ways about it.”

Water rates in California have basically doubled within the past 10 years.

“Industry-wide, we’ve seen the cost of water go through the roof,” he said. “That’s a dramatic change and it’s had a lot of impacts.”

In response, the district has cut costs, reducing its staff and trimming retirement costs among other actions, Bardin said.

Behind those rising costs, he said, have been a number of factors, including the investment in water storage facilities and infrastructure, the economic downturn and stresses on water supplies. Water suppliers have also turned to more expensive means of producing water, such as a desalination plant now under construction in Carlsbad.

“All those things cumulatively add up to why there is so much pressure on our rates to go up,” he said.

In spite of the challenges faced by the water industry, Bardin has effectively managed the district and planned for the future, said Michael Hogan, president of the district’s board of directors.

“The hiring of Mike as general manager has been a tremendous asset to the district. His public administration and management capabilities are superb,” said Hogan.

Among Bardin’s major accomplishments, said Hogan, was working with the board to develop a strategic business plan to achieve the district’s goals. As part of that plan, Hogan said, district staff conducted a complete inventory of all of its assets, from pipelines to treatment plants to pumping stations.

“Before there was never an assessment of the infrastructure as there is now. That has allowed the board to make decisions on where to apply financial resources as part of our financial plan, and to minimize our risk of failures,” Hogan said.

During Bardin’s tenure, the district has invested some $30 million in infrastructure improvements, and has compiled a $60 million capital improvement plan.

Bardin drew praise from his water industry colleagues in San Diego County.

“He’s really been one of the general managers in the county that has both local perspective in his district and a regional view of things. He’s really been a leader among the general managers,” said Ken Weinberg, director of water resources with the County Water Authority.

Over the years, said Weinberg, Bardin has worked with other agencies in the region on such issues as drought management and the permitting process for the Carlsbad desalination plant, which is expected to be in operation by 2016.

Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, said that as the desalination plant was being developed, there was a lot of discussion as to how the costs of the project would be allocated among local water agencies. One proposed plan would have benefitted districts with their own local water supply, such as Santa Fe, to the detriment of others that purchase all of their water from the County Water Authority.

According to Arant, Bardin advocated a more balanced approach that was equitable for all of the local agencies. “He rose above his parochial interest and advocated for something more important for the region,” Arant said.

‘”Mike is very well thought of by his fellow managers and regarded as someone who is reasonable and practical,” Arant said.

Although he has worked in the wastewater and water industries for 35 years, Bardin said he’s not quite ready for retirement. Before coming to Santa Fe in 2004, he worked for the city of San Clemente, a joint powers agency in Orange County, and the Leucadia Wastewater District.

“I don’t see myself being done, I see myself being in the middle (of my career) and having a lot to offer,” he said.