Thomas Wong MPA ’13, president of the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District board (Photo courtesy of Thomas Wong)
By Cristy Lytal
USC Price School of Public Policy alumnus Thomas Wong thinks a lot about California’s drought. That’s because he’s the president of the Board of Directors of the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and a representative for his hometown of Monterey Park.
And though he was named the district’s president just two months ago, community service is nothing new to Wong. During his time as an undergraduate student, he interned in Congressman Henry Waxman’s district office; and later chaired the Monterey Park Environmental Commission, championing efforts to help families and businesses save money and live healthier lives.
Those experiences eventually led him to pursue a Master of Public Administration program at USC Price. Wong was still a graduate student when he was initially elected as a board member of the water district in November 2012.
Wong explained how his Price School education prepared him for the challenges of serving on the board, which provides high-level oversight and approves budgets for the water district.
“I took classes on sustainable cities and smart growth,” he said. “It’s been amazing to be in that position where I’m exercising the lessons I learned in class and many things that I’ve been taught, and to see those changes take place, and to see us move forward.”
He also credits his MPA degree with inspiring him to spearhead long-term strategic planning meetings soon after his election to the board. At these semi-annual meetings, the board creates a work plan for their general manager to implement with the staff.
“Thomas is really what the Price School is all about — going out into the real world and making a difference,” said Professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, who taught Wong’s Communicating Public Policy course. “And anyone who is involved in the issue of water right now has a very important job.”
In December 2015, Wong assumed an even more important role when he was named board president in the midst of the worst drought in California’s history.
As president, Wong is working to ensure a clean, sustainable and affordable water supply. Currently, his district relies entirely on the California State Water Project, which imports water from Northern California.
A more local source of water – the groundwater basin in the San Gabriel Valley – is highly polluted with chemicals dumped decades ago.
“It’s the largest geographic Superfund area in the entire country,” he said. “And we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, in ongoing cleanup costs to make sure that water is usable by people.”
In the future, he envisions cultivating more diverse sources, including storm water capture and water recycling. He also plans to continue promoting water-efficient technology and conservation measures.
“Scientists are telling us it’s likely that these droughts will occur more frequently, and it’s going to be a lot drier in the future,” he said. “How do we prepare for that kind of future?”
In tandem with this environmental reality, aging infrastructure poses a challenge in Wong’s district, which maintains and operates its own pipelines and hydroelectric power facility.
To support progress on various fronts, Wong plans to pursue grant funding from the $7.545 billion water bond approved by California voters in November 2014, and to explore the potential for federal dollars.
Wong is complementing these efforts by educating the community about everything from how to tap into rebate incentives for conserving water to why one El Nino year can’t end a multi-year drought.
“A lot of my work and a lot of my time are committed to attending community meetings, talking about and giving an update on the water situation, answering questions,” Wong said.
Despite his array of important responsibilities, Wong’s job as president of the water board is only part-time. He also works full-time as an external affairs liaison for the California State Controller. Still, he wouldn’t trade his public service for more free time.
“I walk down the street, and I can see some of the things that we’ve done at the district actually happen and make the community I grew up in better. And I can take part in making it into the community I want to be in and that I want to live in, and that I think other people want to live and thrive in,” he said. “That’s totally rewarding.”