Dennis B. Underwood, chief executive officer and general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, died of liver cancer Wednesday at his home in the San Bernardino County community of Alta Loma, a spokesman for the agency said. He was 60.
A 35-year veteran of the water industry, Underwood was a former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and had been a vice president of the Metropolitan Water District for six years before being named in April to head the Los Angeles-based water wholesaler and importer.
He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his appointment to the top MWD post. He carried out his duties until last week, when he went on medical leave.
Underwood was known for his leadership on Colorado River water issues and for his skill as a negotiator in an arena with a long history of acrimonious battles over water rights.
"The water world has lost one of its most accomplished and humble leaders," MWD board Chairman Wes Bannister said in a statement Thursday. "The underlying theme of Dennis' entire career was to balance needs with grace. That meant that every cause and every project he was involved in was tempered by clear, well-negotiated and respectful interaction with everyone on both sides of the table."
The MWD is a consortium of 26 agencies that provides more than 50% of the water used by 18 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
During nearly four decades in the water business, Underwood established a reputation as a peacemaker who "successfully engineered a number of cease-fires in a lot of wars," said Richard Golb, a former Northern California water official who knew Underwood for 16 years. "He was brilliant and fearless in doing the right thing."
Among his major accomplishments, Underwood, as MWD's vice president of Colorado River resources, was a chief architect of a plan to enable California to live within its allocation from the Colorado River and wean itself from surplus supplies. The 2003 agreement brought a close to years of bickering among several water agencies on how to divvy up Colorado River resources.
He also played a central role in negotiating one of the nation's largest habitat conservation programs, covering 27 species along more than 450 miles of the lower Colorado River, from Lake Mead to the Mexico border. Approved early this year, the ambitious 50-year program will protect endangered species and wildlife habitats while preserving existing river water diversions and power operations.
"Dennis was a creative and dynamic force in improving the management of western water and promoting environmental protection and enhancement," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said Thursday.
Underwood was born in Greenfield, Mass., and grew up in Vernon, Vt. After earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering at Vermont's Norwich University in 1966, he worked for a year at the California Department of Water Resources. He then served two years in Vietnam with the Army Corps of Engineers, where he attained the rank of captain.
After completing his military service he returned to the state Department of Water Resources, where he worked from 1969 to 1978.
From 1978 to 1989 he was executive director and executive secretary of the Colorado River Board of California, which oversees the state's rights and interests in the Colorado River system.
From 1989 to 1993 he was commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, where he directed activities related to water, energy, land, conservation and environmental protection for 17 western states. He ran his own consulting business for six years before joining the MWD.
Underwood is survived by his wife, Carmen; a daughter, Michelle Dejournett; five brothers and two grandsons.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.