Looking back over a 35-year career at Santa Margarita Water District, General Manager Dan Ferons has a lot of accomplishments to be proud of. Ask him to pick out his favorite and his answer is simple.
“I always like the next challenge best,” Ferons said.
A leap into the unknown
A civil engineer who got his start in the field in high school as a part-time drafter at an engineering company, Ferons joined the District in 1986 as its project engineer. He started out working on pipelines and facilities for the fledgling water provider.
“I came to the District thinking I’d stay a couple of years and then move on,” Ferons said. That attitude quickly shifted when he realized that working in an area poised for growth brought all sorts of opportunities for interesting public works projects. Though he had been employed at several engineering firms before joining the District, he was certain that few other places would offer as many opportunities.
Still, taking the job had its risks. Ferons remembers driving with his wife Jan from their then-home in Santa Ana to Santa Margarita Parkway around the time he was interviewing for the job. Except for a few model homes under construction, the road was one of the few modernizations to be found for miles. Though plans for the area’s development were well underway, envisioning that future took quite a bit of imagination in the mid-1980s. Jan asked him if he was sure about the choice. He was.
An early interest in engineering
Ferons came to Southern California with his family as a youth. His father was in the Air Force and the family moved around the country to support his service. Born in Roswell, New Mexico, Ferons lived in Alaska and Nebraska before his father’s transfer to Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California. Ferons attended high school in nearby Redlands. There, his interest in sketching and drawing combined with a newfound interest in engineering thanks to the high school’s acclaimed drafting program. A family friend helped him land that part-time job in drafting, cementing his interest in the field as a career.
Back then, engineering and architectural plans were hand-drawn with ink on linen or mylar sheets instead of generated in AutoCAD software. Ferons recalls drawing lines on plans, and with a smile, admitted he still had most of the gear from those days though he rarely finds use for it. “Today we can do so much more with AutoCAD,” he said.
Ferons earned his bachelor of science in civil engineering from Cal Poly Pomona, where classes in environmental engineering inspired him to pursue a career working in water. “Water hooks you in,” he said. The importance of ensuring that people have a reliable system at an affordable cost seemed clear and the challenges of making that happen intrigued him.
A time of transformation
The California Environmental Quality Act had been signed into law by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1970, requiring rigorous reviews of environmental impacts on construction projects. Following the landmark law’s enactment, the field of environmental engineering grew, as did thought processes about environmental impacts. In the decades since, much has changed. For Ferons, beginning his career in the late 70s meant being part of the process and watching it evolve. That transformation has kept his interest high.
“Early in my career, storm drains were commonly built to move as much water away as fast as you could, to protect people and property from flooding,” he said. “Today, we understand how important it is to retain the runoff and put it back into groundwater basins.”
The changes taking place in south Orange County were equally compelling. When Ferons joined the District, it had about 13,000 water connections. Water imported from the Colorado River and the State Water Project via the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was inexpensive and relatively plentiful. Communities such as Coto de Caza were construction sites. The Chiquita Water Treatment Plant was built in 1985 and became operational in 1986, treating the area’s wastewater.
Today, the District has 57,000 connections, three reservoirs, reduced dependence on imported water and serves a community approaching 200,000 people. For Ferons, the desire to ensure people have the water they need to live has never abated.
“Sometimes I think about the fact that 170,000 people woke up, brushed their teeth and took a shower without worry about where the water came from, all for about a penny a gallon,” Ferons said. He called it a luxury to be able to do that, but it’s also a testament to the smart planning and resource management that the District has strived toward under his leadership.
Local supplies for uncertain times
A key milestone in the District’s journey to reduced dependence on imported water was the opening of Upper Chiquita Reservoir in 2011, a project Ferons oversaw as the District’s chief engineer and director of operations. The 244-million-gallon reservoir nestled into the western slope of scenic Chiquita Canyon serves as an emergency drinking water supply for area residents should imported water supplies be interrupted for infrastructure repairs or due to disaster. Upper Chiquita Reservoir can provide more than 168,000 families with about 200 gallons of fresh water a day for one week.
Today, thanks to that project and others including the new Trampas Canyon Dam and Reservoir, Gobernada Multi-Purpose Basins, the expansion of the Chiquita Water Reclamation Plant, and the Lake Mission Viejo Advanced Purified Water Treatment Facility, SMWD is prepared for about 30 days of emergency back-up water supplies. These important projects strengthened the area’s ability to bounce back should a large earthquake or other disaster knock out important infrastructure delivering imported water.
Best of all worlds
For Ferons, none of his successes would have been possible without the support of the SMWD Board of Directors, who have trusted him to lead the transformation. “Our Board has been extraordinary over the years. They’re committed to the community, willing to listen and to support large, intergenerational projects,” he said.
He is also grateful for the work/life balance he has been able to find over the past three-and-a-half decades. While the work has been challenging and important, he has still found time to spend doing the things he loves: surfing with his wife, son and daughter as well as painting and sketching projects including scenic murals of gardens, dinosaurs, Star Wars and the Old West on the walls of the childrens’ bedrooms.
“My career at the District has allowed me to figure out what was important to me,” Ferons said. “I’ve been offered other opportunities over the years, but here I’ve had the best of all worlds. I could be at home and help coach the kids when they were younger, stay involved in the community, surf with the family, and still have a fulfilling professional career. It’s hard to beat that.”
Today, his children are adults but the family remains close and still finds time to surf together, sometimes driving to the beach in old school California style via a vintage 1949 Plymouth Woodie. He meets his daughter Kathryn, a graphic designer for Disney, near the Santa Monica home she shares with her husband to catch waves. Ferons has also surfed in North Carolina where his son Daniel, a marine biologist teaching at Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, lives with his wife. Ferons and his wife also enjoy paddleboarding near Newport or Dana Point Harbors.
October 9, 2020 marked the dedication of the landmark Trampas Canyon Reservoir and Dam project, an important infrastructure project that will enable the District to use 100% of its treated wastewater for irrigation. Ferons had first conceived this project 15 years ago in his role as SMWD’s Chief Engineer, as the District sought innovative solutions to reduce its dependence on imported water. Today, with the support of the SMWD Board and the steadfast efforts of a dedicated team of professionals and contractors, that vision of local water reliability is a reality.
In most years, dedication of such a key project would draw hundreds for an in-person event. However, with COVID-19 health precautions in place, a smaller gathering with a virtual component marked the occasion. Local elected, regional and state officials commended the District and its community partners on the project. Key project supporters received a copy of an acrylic painting of the reservoir by Ferons. The original will hang in the SMWD Board Room.
At the ceremony attended by more than 300 people online and in-person, Ferons recalled how Board members over the years had challenged staff to dream big as they aimed to increase the community’s water supply resiliency.
“Today we are on the precipice of filling a reservoir that will supply irrigation, groundwater recharge, and locally sourced drinking water to meet the current and future needs of the community,” Ferons said at the event. “We’re replacing those dreams and that vision with water for the future.”
The completion of Trampas Canyon Reservoir created a natural pause for reflection and gratitude for Ferons and many of those who spent years bringing the project to fruition. But in characteristic style, the energetic general manager was already thinking about what comes next.
“Now we can really start looking at the ability to recharge recycled water into the groundwater basins,” Ferons said. This next phase may expand the region’s drinking water supply by using recycled water to recharge groundwater basins for later use.
While few can guess what the future will hold, Ferons is excited to tackle the next set of challenges, armed with years of experience, a track record of success, and a dedicated team willing to do what it takes to serve the community.
“There’s always something new coming up,” Ferons said. The 170,000 area residents depending on SMWD for reliable and safe water can rest assured the District will rise to meet whatever comes next.