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Environmentalist chief looks for bright future at DWP

Former lawyer David Nahai has led efforts to conserve water and shift the utility to renewable sources of energy.

September 13, 2009|Alana Semuels

The gig: As chief executive and general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Nahai, 56, heads the largest municipal utility in the country. It supplies electricity and water to residents, employs more than 8,500 workers and has an annual budget of more than $4 billion. He's led efforts to conserve water and shift the utility to renewable sources of energy.

Background: Born in Iran, Nahai moved to England when he was 10 to attend boarding school and college. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, many of his relatives moved to Southern California, so he joined them here.

Education: Nahai has bachelor's and master's degrees in law from the London School of Economics, a master's degree from the University of London and a master of laws degree from UC Berkeley.

First venture: He partnered with some college friends to import sheepskin coats and table covers to England from Iran. But by the time the goods arrived, there wasn't as much of a demand for them. "We lost our investment and I ended up living on chocolate bars," he says.

First defeat: As a barrister in England, Nahai's first job was to prosecute shoplifters. He recalls one loss that was tough to swallow. The defendant used a "pill defense," and said that because she had taken Valium she couldn't be held accountable for her actions.

Launching a career: Nahai began practicing law in Los Angeles in 1979, becoming a partner at Jacobs, Pierno, Gersh and Ellsworth and then at Stroock and Stroock and Lavan. He then founded his own practice, Nahai Law Corp., which specialized in real estate, corporate, environmental and commercial law.

From lawyer to environmentalist: Nahai was appointed to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board in 1997 and became vice president of the Department of Water and Power after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he wanted more environmentalists on the DWP board. Nahai says he has always been interested in environmental issues. "With the [Iranian] revolution, the resettlement of my family and forming my own family, it took time before I could have the luxury of really pursuing a passion."

Biggest challenges: Drought and coal. Nahai wants the city to reclaim more wastewater and capture rainfall before it goes out into the ocean. "We have to recognize that our external water sources are not going to expand, while our city is going to expand, so we have to look for new sources of water." Nahai says the city will also have to focus more on wind, solar and geothermal sources to wean itself off coal, which he calls "one of the most polluting fuels as far as global warming is concerned."

His carbon footprint: Nahai drives a Nissan Altima hybrid. He says his family has reduced its water use by 27% in the last year by buying a new washing machine, installing more efficient appliances and reducing sprinkler use. "My lawn has had better days," he says.

Conservation and cleanliness: Nahai has a timer in his shower to make sure he uses only five minutes' worth of water.

Personal: Married, three children, ages 22, 20 and 17. Nahai is an avid scuba diver.

Favorite environmental book: Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."


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