Dennis B. Underwood, an esteemed Western water expert and former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who recently became the CEO and general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, has died. He was 60.
Underwood was selected last April to the top post at Metropolitan after playing a leading role in a crucial and complex effort regarding California's share of Colorado River supplies as well as negotiating one of the nation's largest habitat conservation programs. He was surrounded by family and friends when he passed away at his Alta Loma home after a battle with cancer.
"The water world has lost one of its most accomplished and humble leaders," said Metropolitan's board chairman Wes Bannister of Underwood's passing. "The underlying theme of Dennis' entire career was to balance needs with grace. That meant that every cause and every project he was involved in was tempered by clear, well-negotiated and respectful interaction with everyone on both sides of the table."
Bannister said Metropolitan will have to "work hard to maintain the spirit of his career and to honor him by moving forward thoughtfully and with purpose, being mindful of our role as a steward for the public and the environment." In Underwood's honor, Bannister directed the American, state and Metropolitan flags to be flown at half-staff at all MWD facilities.
"Dennis' unique finesse and steadfast commitment to securing a balanced approach to resolving complex and highly sensitive water issues were an inspiration," Bannister added.
"I am deeply saddened by the news of Dennis' death," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "As a former commissioner of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation and a major architect of the Lower Colorado River Multi-species Conservation Plan, Dennis was a creative and dynamic force in improving the management of Western water and promoting environmental protection and enhancement."
Calling Underwood "a great friend and colleague," Reclamation Commissioner John Keys said today that the water world has suffered a great loss.
"I credit Dennis with creating an atmosphere where people can find creative solutions rather than seeking out new ways to do battle. While there are lots of issues and disputes and concerns on the Colorado River today, one thing that I'm sure everyone can agree on is that Dennis Underwood was one of the great leaders in the modern history of the Colorado River," Keys said.
Underwood took a medical leave of absence in late October and designated Debra C. Man as acting CEO and general manager. Man, who was Metropolitan's CEO, will continue in this role while MWD's Board of Directors considers steps to name Underwood's successor.
"The water community has suffered a tremendous loss," said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "Dennis was one of the most dedicated, compassionate and knowledgeable public servants I have ever had the pleasure to know and work with. His work ethic and commitment to balanced resource management made him a leader. His vision will be missed."
When Underwood was selected as the district's 12th general manger, he said serving as CEO of Metropolitan would be the crowning jewel in his long, varied life in the world of water.
Soon after assuming his new Metropolitan role, Underwood reflected on his own personal philosophy and thoughts regarding public service in an article he penned for a district employee publication.
"I think I am a reflection of the heartland of the country," he wrote in Metropolitan's People.interactive publication. "I am not the kind of person who will walk across your lawn to get where I am going. Instead, I will walk around. I have respect for other people and a good sense of right and wrong. I have strong ties to public service, where you can contribute to make the world a better place and where you can wake in the morning and feel better about yourself."
Underwood is survived by his wife, Carmen; his daughter and son-in-law, Michelle and Ryan Dejournett of California; five brothers, Russell and Lawrence of Massachusetts, Rory of Vermont, Kevin of Maine and Jeffrey of New Hampshire; and two grandsons.