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California and the West

Head of MWD to Leave for Post in Private Industry

Utilities: John Wodraska announces departure after tumultuous 5-year tenure with state's largest water agency.

September 30, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John R. Wodraska, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California during five years of nearly continuous tumult in the water industry, announced Tuesday that he is leaving to take a job with a new international water company.

Wodraska, 50, will become managing director of North American operations at Azurix, a water projects subsidiary of Enron, a worldwide natural gas and electricity company based in Houston.

John Foley, MWD board chairman, praised Wodraska for guiding the agency "through a critical period in water history." He said he was shocked when Wodraska told him that he was leaving.

In five years at the top of the state's largest water agency, Wodraska dealt with a sometimes fractious 51-member governing board, moved to counter angry criticism of the MWD from the Legislature and tried to guide the MWD into an era of downsizing, conservation and water transfers.

His tenure at the MWD was marked by a bitter fight between it and one of its 27 member agencies, the San Diego County Water Authority.

"His last two years were two years from hell," said Steve Erie, political science professor at UC San Diego. "Woody has been fighting a multi-front war: with the Legislature, factions on his own board and San Diego. He's leaving just as the waters are still."

To be head of the MWD is to be smack in the middle of California's seemingly never-ending water wars, and Wodraska, who came to the MWD after 19 years with the South Florida Water Management District, attempted--not always successfully--to be a consensus builder.

Tom Levy, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District, said Wodraska played a key role in shaping the unprecedented federal and state agreement to save the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in healing a breach between the MWD and Central Valley farmers, and in helping rival State Water Project recipients fashion an allocation formula.

Wodraska was the 10th general manager for the MWD, which supplies water to 16 million people in six counties.

Wodraska, who earns $197,000 a year, said the unsolicited offer from Azurix was too tantalizing to resist. He said that although he wishes more progress had been made on fixing the delta and reaching agreement on Colorado River issues, he is pleased that the San Diego-Imperial Valley water deal has been signed and that criticism of the MWD in Sacramento has quieted.

"What better time to leave than when things are going good?" Wodraska said.

Tom Graff, attorney for the Oakland-based Environmental Defense Fund, which has often been at odds with the MWD, said Wodraska's departure is "an opportunity to strike out in some new directions." Under Wodraska, Graff said, the MWD tilted too far toward agriculture over federal allocation of water and increased storage capacity.

Wodraska said he will stay with the MWD to assist in the beginning stages of finding a successor.

Times staff writer Terry McDermott contributed to this story.

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