When Carlos Lugo was chosen among five dozen candidates for general manager of the Helix Water District, he didn’t think of the history he made—becoming the first Latino chief of an agency that traces its origins to the 1880s.
“My wife brought it to my attention” after seeing the Patch news story, Lugo said in a recent interview with Patch editors Ken Stone of La Mesa and Christine Huard of Lemon Grove.
“But when I think about it, I think it is something to be noticed. Certainly, I look back at where my father came from and where I came from, and he certainly would have been very proud, knowing the very poor situation he came from in Mexico.”
Lugo’s grandfather was a gold miner in Sinaloa state. His father came to California during the bracero program of the 1940s.
But after growing up in Borrego Springs—graduating from high school in 1981, in a class of 16—he went to San Diego State and returned to his father’s business—the water business.
Lugo’s contract was approved 5-0 by the Helix water board Feb. 1. In the first of a two-part interview, Lugo talks about his preparation for the job, his family and the district he now oversees.
Patch: You’ve been here long enough to see the changing of the guard.
Lugo: Yeah, I’ve seen three general managers during my tenure: Bob Friedgen, Don Kuhl [and Mark Weston].
Patch: How long have you been with the district?
Lugo: I’m coming up on 21 years. Right out of college, I went to work for a small consulting firm, and the gentleman that was running it was named Linden Burzell, and he was the ex-general manager and chief engineer of VID, Vista Irrigation District and then he became the general manager and chief engineer of the San Diego County Water Authority.
He retired from the water authority and consulted to smaller agencies that didn’t have staff engineers. So out of college, I went to work for him because I had met him as I worked in Borrego Springs. That’s where I was brought up, doing construction and working for water companies there because my father had worked for the water company there for over 40 years down there. So they had a relationship.
So I worked for him for almost four years and he was always encouraging me to develop. Their overall plan was for me to stay there and eventually take over part of the business. We would consult to smaller agencies like Lakeside, Yuima, Borrego Springs Water Co.—which is now Borrego Springs Water District. So he thought I would take over the business when he really retired, for the second time.
But this opportunity at Helix came up as an assistant engineer and (Burzell) believed that you need to get out there and get some experience, look at the public sector. So I came to the public sector as an assistant engineer, and I thought I’d be here about three years. And now I’m coming up on 21. His son is general manager of Yuima Municipal Water District. Same name. It’s a little water agency just above Valley Center.
Patch: Why so many water districts? There are 24 in San Diego County. It has to do with historical water departments, I guess.
Lugo: And the development as it progressed. It’s usually tied to that.
Patch: We want to introduce you to our readers and tell them more about you. Where were your born, for example?
Lugo: I was born in Brawley, Calif., near El Centro. My dad migrated from Mexico to Borrego, and the nearest hospital was in Brawley, 45 minutes away. And at that time it was run by nuns of the Catholic Church.
Patch: Was [your father] a legal alien?
Lugo: He initially came over under the bracero program when there was a shortage of labor here during World War II, and that’s how he got introduced to California. But when that program ended, he went back. And then he migrated over and got sponsored by a family in Borrego and worked on their agricultural side of things. There’s was citrus and grapes way back then, and he eventually started a family.
Patch: What’s his name? Is he still living?
Lugo: Victor B. Lugo. ... He passed away a few years back.
Patch: And how many brothers and sisters do you have?
Lugo: There was a total of seven in the family: two girls, three boys.
Patch: What schools did you go to?
Lugo: Borrego, believe it or not, does have an elementary school and a high school. The student body at the high school when I was there from seventh grade to 12th grade totaled about 150 students, and my graduating class consisted of about 16 students in 1981. And then I came over to San Diego State and entered the civil engineering program there. And you can imagine the shock. That school was 34,000, so from a kid where the class size was 16 to kids to classes that were 100-plus in some cases, like lecture halls.
Patch: Were you thinking about water when you went into engineering?
Lugo: Yes. My dad, once he got established in Borrego and did some of the agriculture. The family was a development family—the Bernands—in Borrego, they had a private water company that they ran. That was part of the development, and he went to work for the water company there. And he worked for that water company for well over 40 years. And then it turned into the Borrego Water District and he eventually worked for them for a few years before he retired.
Patch: Do you think living in the California desert makes you more aware of the need for water, the issues surrounding water?
Lugo: Absolutely. In Borrego, your only source is well water. The pipelines from Northern California and the Colorado [River] don’t even come close to Borrego, so we’re highly dependent on well water. And there’s an ongoing issue about the basin being drawn down there. And that was back even when I was a kid. That was a hot issue in the valley.
Patch: So is that something you’d call a lifelong awareness?
Patch: You went to Helix basically because of Linden saying go for the opening?
Lugo: I saw the opening and discussed it with Linden Burzell at the time, and he was always encouraging me to expand my knowledge. We had done consulting in the private sector. He said you might want to go take some time and go to the public sector and see how that works, because most of his career was in the public sector. So I came over to Helix under his encouragement.
Patch: What was the culture of the Helix district then? Were you welcomed? You obviously had the academic credentials, but as a Latino were you welcomed here? Is there a mix of people here? How did it work?
Lugo: When I first came to Helix, it was stable. It always has been a stable organization. I was welcomed from Day One—very welcomed. They needed my help, No. 1, and they were shorthanded at the time. There wasn’t a lot of movement in terms of the employee group. It was pretty stable, not a lot of turnover.
So I was one of the few that got hired during that period of time. And one of the things I joke with Sue [Fox, human resources manager]—who’s still here … who hired me, se’s still here. She said you know, at Helix, there’s not a lot of turnover, and we have a lot of folks who’ve been here a long time, and it’s a very stable work environment. And I found that to be true.
But since the day I got hired, what has been constant has been change. And from that point on, it was the same number of folks, but then we started seeing retirements and then new folks coming into the organization and new programs getting started. So since about 1990, we saw a little more turnover than they had originally.
Patch: What made you decide to apply for the general manager position?
Lugo: I’ve been working for Helix Water District for over 21 years, and as I developed—I’ve been very fortunate here—I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to work on a variety of projects here, some small, some very large, like the expansion of our treatment plant. That was a well over $40 million project I spent 3 1/2 years on. And as I spent more and more time, I started to develop more skills, and the higher up I got in the organization, the more I got into leading and managing people.
And under the guidance of our current general manager, Mark Weston, he came from Poway and was the director of engineering, he moved into the general manager position and appointed me as director of engineering. So I’ve been working under him for about 10 years and grown, and it just became a natural progression for me.
I love the opportunity to engage with people and lead them—especially in this organization. We have a very unique organization. We have very talented people in all areas. So it was very attracting to me to go into the general manager position, where you’re surrounded by very capable people. We also have a very sound organization financially. We know what our mission is: providing high-quality water to our constituents. We do it efficiently, effectively. And people care here. It’s a culture which has customer service at a very high level. And I really wanted to continue to be part of that and lead that.
Patch: Even though I made the big deal of it, you may not make a big deal of it—being the first general manager of the Helix Water District, which started under different names in the 1880s. What does that mean to be a kind of a groundbreaker in terms of first Latino GM?
Lugo: Well, you’re right. When I put in for the job I didn’t think of the Latino side of things. I really thought of it as an individual. I really didn’t even give it any thought until I saw, quite frankly, the spin on the Patch. My wife brought it to my attention. But when I think about it, I think it is something to be noticed. Certainly, I look back at where my father came from and where I came from, and he certainly would have been very proud, knowing the very poor situation he came from in Mexico.
Patch: What city or state did he come from?
Lugo: He came from the state of Sinaloa, it’s two states down. That’s where he grew up as a kid. His father was a gold miner in the hills near Sinaloa, but got black lung, or something to that effect in the respiratory system. He knew he was dying, so he brought his family—which was my father’s family—to a small town called La Trinidad, and left the family there, and then went back to the hills, and passed away. But he left his family in a situation where they could carry on and survive.
Patch: Do you have any relatives still in Sinaloa?
Lugo: Yes, from both my father’s side and my mother’s side.
Patch: Are they familiar with your progress?
Lugo: No, we lost contact. Not a lot of contact with them, since both my parents have passed away.
Patch: Are you fluent in Spanish?
Lugo: I wouldn’t say fluent, but what I refer to jokingly as Spanglish. I do well enough that I can often speak to Spanish-speaking folks here at the district, and also speak to the news media when we have situations like main-line breaks and they want to get a Spanish perspective on it.
Patch: You raised the issue of the district being in a good financial spot now. [The district] just raised the rate again September. The Lemon Grove City Council was opposed to that rate increase, and [Councilman] Howard Cook came and presented you with a letter of protest that called for the district to start tightening its belt, like many other agencies have had to do. Can you address that—as far as the district making cuts or changes or tightening some belt to do better with the money it has instead of continuing to raise rates?
Lugo: Sure. Let me just step back a little bit in time. We’ve been very concerned about the water rates and were very conscientious about how that impacts our ratepayers. There’s a culture here where we try to do everything efficiently. For example, the staffing in engineering has been the same for the last 10 or 15 years, even though we’re doing more. So there are examples of that throughout the agency.
But the more immediate things that we’ve done, started back maybe two or three years ago, we’ve been looking throughout the organization from water quality, administrative services to operations to even our capital improvement program—areas where we can be more streamline. And just in the last two years I think we’re down to 20 positions and to address that issue. And those [job losses] have been not through layoffs but through attrition.
We also put into place last year that we are cutting our capital [improvement program] by about a half-million dollars over the next 10 years—we’ve got that programmed into our operating budgets. So those are things that we’re looking at and doing already in trying to ease, if you will, the pressures on the rates.