The new person in charge of delivering water to one in 17 Americans has two big goals: seeing through a controversial public works project to build two new California water tunnels and ensuring her agency is represented by a more diverse group of people.

Gloria Gray became chairwoman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on Jan. 1 and made history, though not for the first time.

She will be the first African-American and second woman to head the board of directors in the 90-year history of the state’s southern zone, the nation’s largest treated water supply district. It delivers water to 26 public agencies that supply water for 19 million Californians.

Before being elected chairwoman, she was the first African-American woman to serve as vice chair of the board.

“My background is totally different than the average person in water,” Gray, who raised two children as a divorced mother in southwestern Los Angeles County, told Bloomberg Environment. “I think I represent more diversity in the community. I represent the average ratepayer. I know the issues of a working-class person.”

A general manager runs the district and oversees its $1.8 billion budget at the direction of the board, with the chair presiding over meetings, appointing members to committees, and representing district policies at the local, state, and national levels. The chair position is unpaid but receives a per diem for meetings.

Fixated on WaterFix

The new chairwoman’s biggest priority is keeping the $17 billion WaterFix project moving forward.

In the works for more than a decade, WaterFix is a state project backed by departing Gov. Jerry Brown (D). It entails building three new intake valves in the northern part of the state and connecting them to two new 35-mile underground tunnels that in turn feed state and federal water supply delivery infrastructure in the southern part of the state.

The Metropolitan Water District is the primary funder and a big supporter of the project, saying it updates 50-year-old infrastructure to adhere to new environmental protections while providing water in a system that is more resilient to earthquakes, sea-level rise, and floods.

“I believe WaterFix provides the solution to all of the issues that are affecting everyone,” Gray said.

Challenges for WaterFix

The project faces dozens of lawsuits and funding uncertainty, and still needs a crucial state water-rights permit. The project was recently withdrawn from the Delta Stewardship Council, which is charged with ensuring a more reliable water supply while also protecting the ecosystem.

The move happened days before the council was set to vote on whether the plan was consistent with long-term management goals for the Delta.

Opponents say the construction alone could disrupt agriculture, taint water supplies, and force people to abandon the towns of Clarksburg and Hood, plus invite harmful barge and truck traffic.

But Gray is unwavering in her commitment to WaterFix and supports the district’s decision to provide $11 billion in funding, a vote that prompted a lawsuit.

“I think this issue was vetted enough to make the decision,” she said. “We had to make that decision for future generations.”

But that doesn’t mean compromises aren’t possible, she said.

“I would listen, see if there is some action I can take to minimize some of those issues,” she said.

‘Powerful Leadership Style’

Collaboration, openness, and a quiet but firm style will help her face the challenges of the post, said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which implements water laws, sets policies, decides on water rights claims, and provides financial assistance to communities for water infrastructure.

“She’s good at listening to people,” Marcus told Bloomberg Environment. “She’s got that quiet but nonetheless powerful leadership style. She’s one of those people that one would underestimate at their peril.”

Even opponents call her kind, open, and reasonable.

“It’s really hard to fight with her, because she’s so nice,” Restore the Delta Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla told Bloomberg Environment.

Barrigan-Parrilla said the group is thrilled a female person of color and former Delta Stewardship Council member is chairwoman, but it is disappointed in her support of WaterFix.

“She’s bought into the propaganda of the Metropolitan Water District that this is going to solve the problem,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “Sadly, it’s not. You would want the new chairwoman to understand there are so many better ways to supply sustainable water delivery for her own customers while protecting the delta.”

Opening Other Doors

Outgoing Metropolitan Water District Chairman Randy Record, a farmer from San Jacinto, said Gray has the ability to open doors he couldn’t.

“We’re completely different people,” he told Bloomberg Environment. “She’ll be able to talk to people about disadvantaged communities.”

Outreach, particularly to minority communities and ratepayers, will be a top priority. She hopes her presence encourages more minorities to seek careers in the water industry.

“They can see me and believe they can achieve it, too,” she said.

Education, Career, Service

Gray came to water later in life.

Born in Houston, her family moved to the Los Angeles area when she was 9 and she got her first job at age 16. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from University of Redlands and a health services management certificate from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Gray worked 30 years for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, retiring as a health care administrator. Throughout much of her career, she focused on community outreach and communication.

Her entry into politics came in 1995 when she was elected to the Inglewood Unified School District’s board of education after friends asked her to run. She served two terms as school board president before fellow Democrats persuaded her in 2006 to run for a long-held seat on the West Basin Municipal Water District.

Gray won, becoming the first African-American elected to serve in the district, which supplies water to 1 million people in 17 cities and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

She joined the Metropolitan Water District 38-member board in 2009, and members encouraged her to run for Record’s seat. Three candidates vied for the spot, and board members elected her to the two-year term with 59 percent of the vote.

“It’s a new look,” she said, “and Met is moving toward the future.”