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David N. Kennedy, 1936 - 2007

'Water czar' directed state agency for a record 15 years

December 27, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

David N. Kennedy, who faced the challenges of a five-year drought and three major floods during his record 15 years as director of the California Department of Water Resources in the 1980s and '90s, has died. He was 71.

Kennedy died Sunday in a Sacramento nursing facility, said department spokesman Ted Thomas, who did not know the cause of death.

Kennedy was appointed director of the Department of Water Resources, California's leading water management agency, by then-Gov. George Deukmejian in 1983. In 1991, then-Gov. Pete Wilson reappointed him to the job of managing the agency's $900-million annual budget and overseeing roughly 2,500 employees.

When he retired in 1998, Kennedy had the longest tenure of any director in the agency's history. The department operates the State Water Project, the largest state-run water and power system in the nation.

As California's "water czar," Kennedy planned and managed the water resources for more than 30 million people.

"California lost a great water leader and dedicated public servant," current agency director Lester Snow said in a department news release. "Dave's knowledge of California's water issues was unparalleled and his commitment to efficient and reliable operation of the State Water Project tireless.

"His efforts have permanently improved water management for all Californians."

Deukmejian recalled Wednesday that Kennedy "was a very practical administrator and recognized that it was necessary to work with all of the different interest groups, and to try to reach accommodation with those groups to move the water program forward."

At one point, Deukmejian's Republican administration attempted to develop a major water transfer program, the former governor said. But after the bill failed when Democrats from Southern California voted against it because it was opposed by some environmental groups, "David Kennedy took the approach that we should try to develop as many storage facilities as possible, both in terms of reservoirs and aquifers.

"So we did develop support for that program, and that certainly helped with meeting the water needs of the state."

Wilson told The Times on Wednesday that Kennedy "was just a remarkably nice guy and absolutely straightforward. You ask a question and you got an honest -- as well as knowledgeable -- answer. I think he probably knew more about water than anyone else in the state."

During Kennedy's years as director, the water department expanded the State Water Project's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping capacity and improved the system's environmental safeguards, according to the agency's news release.

The agency also intensified delta ecosystem and fish research, and completed construction of the 100-mile Coastal Branch to provide supplemental water supplies to users in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

In 1994, Kennedy helped negotiate the Monterey Agreement, which made the delivery of State Water Project water among agricultural and urban customers more equitable.

During the 1987-92 drought -- one of the longest and most severe dry spells in California history -- Kennedy created and implemented the state-run Drought Water Bank, reportedly a first in water bank planning in the nation.

Kennedy, however, did not consider the drought his greatest challenge as agency director; to him, his toughest trials were the three major floods in 1986, 1995 and 1997.

"Decisions about reservoir releases and levee repairs have to be made in real time with incomplete information and many different things going on at once," Kennedy told a UC Berkeley publication in 2003. "Those were pretty hectic times."

After widespread flooding in 1986, Kennedy helped upgrade the agency's flood-fighting abilities through the creation of the Joint Operations Center, among other things.

As a California representative on the Colorado River Board of California, Kennedy also helped influence Colorado River policy.

In 1998, he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional distinctions available to engineers.

The son of civil engineer Norman Kennedy, who later became a respected professor of transportation engineering at UC Berkeley, David Kennedy was born in Ontario, Ore., on Sept. 10, 1936, and later moved to Albany, Calif.

After graduating from Albany High School in 1954, he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering at UC Berkeley in 1959 and then served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He returned to UC Berkeley and earned his master's degree in 1962. From 1962 to 1968, he was an engineer in the Department of Water Resources' statewide planning office and was involved in planning water development facilities throughout the state.

From 1968 to 1974, he was an engineer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and he served as assistant general manager of that agency from 1974 to 1983.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Kennedy served on an independent external review panel that reviewed the federal government's study of levee failures in New Orleans.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara; three children, Ann Kennedy Watembach, Susan Orttung and Richard Kennedy; his sister, Colleen Engstrom; and six grandchildren.

At Kennedy's request, funeral services were limited to family members.


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