As California water agency investigates top manager, some worry progress could be stymied

LA VERNE, CA - APRIL 04: Adel Hagekhalil, general manager and chief executive officer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, speaks at Weymouth Water Treatment Plant in the city of La Verne, the first treatment plant built by Metropolitan in La Verne, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
With Adel Hagekhalil under investigation, supporters of the Metropolitan Water District general manager worry that his sidelining might slow progress toward climate change adaptations. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

In the three years that Adel Hagekhalil has led California’s largest urban water supplier, the general manager has sought to focus on adaptation to climate change — in part by reducing reliance on water supplies from distant sources and investing in local water supplies.

His efforts to help shift priorities at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has traditionally focused largely on delivering imported water to the region, have won praise among environmental advocates who hope to reduce dependence on supplies from the Colorado River and Northern California.

However, now that Hagekhalil is under investigation for harassment allegations and has been placed on leave by the MWD board, some of his supporters say they’re concerned that his sidelining might interfere with the policies he has helped advance.

“I would hope this doesn't mean that we undo the progress that's been made since Adel came in,” said Conner Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, who has supported Hagekhalil’s policies.

The accusations against Hagekhalil surfaced Thursday while he was traveling in Singapore for a water conference.

Chief Financial Officer Katano Kasaine made the allegations in a confidential letter to the board, which was leaked to the media. She said Hagekhalil has harassed, demeaned and sidelined her and created a hostile work environment.

Hagekhalil denied the accusations, saying he has always treated the staff with respect and professionalism, and that the claims amount to “disagreements on management decisions.”

The MWD board voted to place Hagekhalil on administrative leave for 90 days while Kasaine’s complaint and other allegations are investigated. In his place, the board temporarily appointed assistant general manager Deven Upadhyay, who has been at the agency for 29 years, as interim general manager.

Everts has for more than three decades been advocating for Southern California to reduce reliance on imported water supplies by boosting local supplies. He said he has been pleased to see Hagekhalil and MWD moving forward with plans for the country’s largest wastewater recycling facility in Carson, and working to develop a plan for adapting to climate change.

Everts said he hopes that whatever results emerge from the investigations, the agency doesn’t revert to an outmoded focus on imported water that he believes some “old guard” leaders of MWD still favor.

Everts, like many others who spoke at Thursday’s board meeting, said the accusations demand a fair and impartial investigation.

“Hopefully, Adel comes back and continues to lead in this direction. And if not, whoever would step in would do that,” Everts said. “Does the culture change of the agency continue to progress? That's my question.”

Read more: Southern California’s ‘water doctor’ pushes for transformation to adapt to climate change

MWD is the nation’s largest wholesale supplier of drinking water, serving cities and agencies that supply 19 million people across Southern California.

MWD Board Chair Adán Ortega Jr. said that while the board made “difficult decisions” regarding the allegations against Hagekhalil, “we maintain our commitment to the policies and direction of this organization.”

Ortega said he doesn’t expect any change in the district’s “current policy course.”

“Our task at hand is tackling climate change,” Ortega said in an interview with The Times. “Anybody that would challenge that is up against a pretty embedded policy framework for tackling climate change.”

Ortega was involved in selecting Hagekhalil, who previously worked for the city of Los Angeles and who was hired after a bitter struggle among board members in 2021. Ortega said his priorities as board chair have been the same priorities that Hagkhalil has been pursuing.

As for the accusations against Hagekhalil, Ortega said he was upset that someone leaked the confidential letter.

“I believe that whoever leaked it was trying to box in the board. But we're not going to let them, and I don't think it worked,” Ortega said.

He said all the initiatives that Hagekhalil was working on will continue under Upadhyay while the matters are investigated.

“The board drives the agenda,” he said. “I think the board has been united on things that Adel and I have both shared.”

Read more: Top manager of California's largest water supplier placed on leave after sexism, harassment allegations

Hagekhalil has led the agency at a time of major initiatives, including negotiations aimed at addressing water shortages on the Colorado River, plans for building the water recycling plant in Carson, and the MWD board’s consideration of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to build a $20-billion water tunnel in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Some of Hagekhalil’s supporters questioned why the matter was brought to the board while he was traveling, and suggested the public airing of grievances appeared to be aimed at pushing aside a leading advocate for transforming the district’s focus.

But Ortega said any speculation that placing Hagekhalil on leave might derail the MWD’s current policy agenda is unfounded.

“The board is fully organized in support of that agenda,” Ortega said. “So I don't feel any nervousness or doubt about our continued policy direction.”

“It's a mistake to think that the fate of our policy agenda rests on one person,” he added. “Nothing is changing in terms of the board's organization or the items that we're considering in future months, or the composition of the committees. All of that is intact. And so nothing changes.”

Still, some environmental advocates have said they’re concerned about a potential link between the surfacing of allegations against Hagekhalil and efforts by some within the agency to push for the proposed Delta Conveyance Project, a 45-mile tunnel that would create a second route to draw water from the Sacramento River into the aqueducts of the State Water Project. They pointed out that Kasaine currently serves as treasurer of the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority, the entity that was created to finance the tunnel project.

“I think it is a calculated ambush that is designed to get the tunnel approved, over the objections of other members of the Metropolitan board,” said Patricia Schifferle, director of Pacific Advocates, an environmental consulting firm.

During an MWD committee meeting on Monday, supporters and opponents of the proposed tunnel debated the costs and benefits of the project.

Karla Nemeth, director of the State Department of Water Resources, told board members that the project is essential to improving the reliability of water supplies in the face of climate change, sea-level rise and a major earthquake.

Other supporters made similar arguments, while opponents argued that building the tunnel would harm the delta’s deteriorating ecosystem and would be more expensive than other water-supply alternatives.

The costs would be paid for by urban and agricultural water districts that decide to participate. The state recently released a cost-benefit analysis that is intended to provide information for local water agencies to consider.

Read more: SoCal will see spike in water rates, taxes to cover rising costs and conservation efforts

The MWD would receive a large share of the water, and the board’s eventual decision on whether to participate is expected to be pivotal in determining whether the state’s plan goes forward.

The MWD board in 2020 agreed to contribute $160.8 million toward planning and pre-construction costs. District officials say the board could consider whether to provide additional funding for planning and pre-construction costs at the end of this year, and it will likely be several years before there is a decision on long-term financial participation.

When the state’s cost-benefit analysis was released last month, Hagekhalil said: “The questions are, how can this project be implemented, what kind of assurances can we have in the resilience it provides to the Delta and our water supply future, and at what price?”

Leaders of several environmental groups said they were disappointed to see Hagekhalil placed on administrative leave before the accusations against him have been investigated.

“It is critically important and appropriate for MWD to take these allegations seriously and we applaud the agency’s decision to investigate the claims made, so that the board can have an accurate understanding of what has been happening among the organization’s senior leadership,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the group LA Waterkeeper. “That said, the public needs more information to ensure the complete independence of this review.”

He said any action against Hagekhalil should have come after an independent investigation.

Reznik called Hagekhalil a “visionary, inclusive and transparent leader” who is helping the agency reform its approach to adapt to the effects of climate change.

“He has been vocal about his vision and plans to transform the agency,” Reznik said. “That focus must continue at MWD.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.