TUCSON – When politicians, activists and academics get together to discuss Arizona water policy, there’s no shortage of controversy and conflict. But everyone seems to agree on this: Sharon Megdal is a good person to have in the room.
And it isn’t just because she directs the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center. It’s because she combines knowledge of the issues with a human touch, they say.
“She’s feisty, but she’s also the person who brings in brownies to a meeting,” said Madeline Kiser, a Tucson activist.
“She reached out to me,” Kiser said. “She knows what we need most is to gain common ground.”
Megdal said water is too complex an issue not to involve as many voices as possible in the debate.
“So many important public policy issues are related to water,” Megdal said in an interview at her office. “I try to understand all the different aspects of it.”
And while her personal warmth may always be there, Megdal has no trouble delivering harsh assessments.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough regional or statewide water planning,” Megdal said. “Leaders can avoid a water crisis by planning properly.”
She gives that message during presentations to the Legislature and local leaders and as a member of the Central Arizona Project’s board of directors. A recent guest column in The Arizona Republic criticized the lack of a comprehensive vision for the state’s water supply.
“What concerns me about that is that Arizona grew so quickly and that it’s going to continue to grow,” Megdal said in the interview. “But there isn’t a comprehensive overlay of a plan.”
Megdal’s education and early career focused on public policy and economics. Before coming to the Water Resources Research Center, she was a university professor and a consultant to large companies, local government agencies and utility companies.
“When one is trained as an economist, it provides an analytical framework for solving problems,” Megdal said. “I think of different ways of asking questions.”
In 1985, Megdal was appointed to the Arizona Corporation Commission, serving to 1987. Suddenly, water was a big part of her job, as the commission regulates local water utilities.
“Once someone immerses themself in water, so to speak, they tend to stay with it,” Megdal said.
The Water Resources Research Center, which Megdal has directed for five years, is tasked with helping communities manage water, educating people about water and encouraging scientific research about Arizona water issues.
One of the center’s initiatives during her tenure: reaching out to working families and non-English speakers about water conservation.
Others involved in water issues said that Megdal has a unique talent for consensus-building.
“What makes her special is her ability to work across different types of people and get along with different people to focus on problem-solving,” said Raina Maier, associate director of the University of Arizona’s Superfund Research Program.
Gene Sander, dean of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said Megdal’s effectiveness and credibility also stem from her professional background.
“Not only is she a phenomenal academic, but she also has a lot of real-world experience,” Sander said.
This perspective makes Megdal and her center a valuable resource for water planning, said Karen Smith, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
“She brings a practical knowledge and experience that is really welcome,” Smith said.
Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said it’s unfortunate that state lawmakers don’t take Megdal’s advice to heart.
“She has great ideas, but her impact has been limited because the elected officials are clueless,” Bahr said. “They don’t want to acknowledge climate change.”
Kiser, the Tucson activist, said Megdal demonstrates tremendous patience while working in a politically charged arena.
“I’m amazed Sharon hasn’t said, ‘Enough of all you people.'” Kiser said.
Megdal said it’s people’s desire to do more to conserve water that keeps her going.
“It’s very, very exciting to see people discover how they can make a difference,” she said. “That’s where the gratification comes.”