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Halla Razak, '86, is director of the San Diego Department of Public Utilities. Photo: Gary Payne Halla Razak, '86, is director of the San Diego Department of Public Utilities. Photo: Gary Payne

Water Czar

Halla Razak, '86, is positioning San Diego for the next drought.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

This story appears in the fall 2015 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

The qualities that drive a distance swimmer also mark an effective leader. Patience, resolve, confidence, focus. Halla Razak, ’86, has them in spades.

Distance swimming is a hobby for the La Jolla resident and San Diego State alumna. During the week (and often on weekends) she sits in the director’s chair at the City of San Diego’s Department of Public Utilities, managing 1,600 employees and a vast water and wastewater infrastructure. The 23 months since Razak took the position have been—in a word—eventful.

In November, the San Diego City Council approved plans to reduce its 85-percent dependence on imported water by constructing purification facilities for turning wastewater into drinking water.

The decision makes San Diego the largest city in the nation to launch potable water reuse with reservoir augmentation. Christened Pure Water San Diego, the project is expected to provide more than a third of the city’s potable water by 2035.

Razak continues to elicit public support for the plan, but her more immediate concern is the sharply reduced statewide water consumption objective set by Governor Jerry Brown in response to the California drought. To comply with its 16-percent reduction target, the City of San Diego has imposed mandatory watering restrictions and broadened its Waste No Water campaign encouraging conservation among homeowners and businesses.

“Right now, my world is overwhelming,” Razak said. Vacation was “out of the question” this summer, though she did manage some weekend time at the beach with husband, Nagy Nosseir, chair emeritus of aerospace engineering at SDSU; daughter, Lara, an environmental studies student of the University of California, Santa Barbara; and son, Rami, a finance major at SDSU.

Love at first sight

Talking about water unleashes the policy wonk in Razak. But when the conversation turns personal, she becomes an animated storyteller, recounting her younger years in Spain and Kuwait, an eye-opening introduction to American college life as a freshman at the University of Dayton, and the unlikely romance of her Russian mother and Iraqi father who, upon first meeting, had no common language.

The animation spikes when she talks about San Diego. Razak arrived in 1984 to begin a master’s program in civil engineering at SDSU and never left.

“It was love at first sight,” she recalled. “My intent all along was to somehow improve life in San Diego. It seemed to me that working for the city would be a good place to start. When I finished my master’s degree, I went to the engineering department and told them I’d work for free.”

That arrangement didn’t last long, as the city recognized Razak’s skill and work ethic. She managed water and wastewater facilities, implemented capital improvement programs and eventually became chief deputy director of the Department of Engineering and Capital Projects.

In 2005, Razak left the city’s employ to become Colorado River program director for the San Diego County Water Authority. There, her cultural aptitude and fluency in several languages were instrumental to the success of negotiations allocating Colorado River water rights among seven western states and Mexico.

“Unlike many engineers, I have a keen interest in conflict resolution and management,” Razak said.

Long-term strategy

She returned to work for the city when interim Mayor Todd Gloria appointed her water czar in 2013. Shortly afterward, the city council approved the potable reuse plan and the public utilities department was named one of three national winners of the 2015 U.S. Water Prize awarded by the U.S. Water Alliance, a non-profit organization advocating for integrated, sustainable management of water across the United States.

San Diego conservationists and environmental groups have also praised the city’s Pure Water plan, but critics charge that steep water and sewer rate increases will be necessary to fund construction of three recycling plants and miles of new pipes. The city doesn’t dispute this charge, but says that Pure Water will be cheaper than imported water in the long run.

The distance swimmer in Razak appreciates San Diego’s far-sighted approach and has a long-term strategy of her own.

“While I am here, I want to position San Diego to be in better shape for the next drought,” she said.