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Dec 20, 2022 | What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been

By Don Zdeba

These lyrics from the Grateful Dead’s song “Truckin’” seem appropriate to summarize my 45-year career as I prepare to embark upon that next phase of life called “Retirement”. In August 1977, a wide-eyed, excited new graduate from Michigan left the home he had known for 22 years and headed west to take a job as a Grade Control Geologist at Kerr-McGee’s Church Rock No. 1 uranium mine located on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Gallup, New Mexico. Working 1,850 feet underground was an experience I had never imagined, nor will I ever forget. I was later promoted to Mine Geologist before being laid off in October 1982 as the market for domestic uranium crashed following the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island. The next year was spent taking substitute teaching assignments in Gallup before landing a job with the New Mexico State Agency on Aging. Imagine a 28-year old geologist having responsibility for six senior citizen centers within San Juan and McKinley counties. It turned out to be a short-lived, but wonderful experience working with seniors. It was during this time that I met a young lady from Texas who was teaching Navajo children at the Church Rock elementary school and moonlighting as a waitress/hostess. That young lady would become my fiancé and, eventually, my wife.

As fate would have it, Kerr-McGee reached out to me with an offer to consider rejoining the company as a Senior Geologist at their chemical operations in Trona, California. I accepted the position and in late August 1983 loaded up my sparse belongings in a U-Haul trailer and ventured west once again to Ridgecrest this time bringing a fiancé along for the adventure. The six years I spent in New Mexico were formidable years in my growth. As the only member of my family to leave my native state I learned a lot about independence, financial responsibility, and just surviving on my own.

I spent 29 years working in the Lake Operations and Development department of the Searles Valley operations having worked under multiple owners (Kerr-McGee, North American Chemical, IMC Chemical, Searles Valley Minerals) eventually becoming Manager of Mining. During this time, we raised two wonderful children that have gone on to be independent adults with successful careers. Our son is a Principal Planner for the City of Newport Beach (currently enrolled in a Master’s in Business program at UC-Irvine) and our daughter is a Nurse Practitioner (recently graduated with a Master’s Degree in Women’s Health from Georgetown University) working with Planned Parenthood.

In 2012, I was presented with the opportunity to become General Manager of the Indian Wells Valley Water District. I had always thought I would finish my career in Trona as my father’s 40-year career with Ford Motor Company served as my example of loyalty and stability. The opportunity to make a career change focusing on water was intriguing enough to convince me to accept the offer. I have never regretted that decision and I am forever grateful to the Board of Directors that entrusted me with the opportunity. My thanks to Peggy Breeden, Peter Brown, Leroy Corlett, Harold Manning, and Don Cortichiato.

The job as General Manager has turned out to be somewhat more exciting than I anticipated when I began. Almost as soon as I started, California experienced a historic five-year drought from 2012 through 2016 resulting in mandatory conservation measures being enacted along with a summons to appear before the State Water Resources Control Board to explain why we were not achieving a 35% reduction in water use. Then there was the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 addressing a long history of lack of regulatory oversight of California’s groundwater resources. It brought about the formation of the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority, the drafting of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan, and subsequently multiple lawsuits filed and remain to be litigated. 2019 brought three significant earthquakes ranging from 5.4 to 7.1 occurring over a two-day period around the 4th of July holiday. Although the District’s facilities did incur some damage, there was no significant impact on our ability to continue to provide water to our customers. We have endured a historic pandemic since late 2019. It impacted people’s health, jobs, ability to freely travel, spend time with family, and in countless other ways. It proved to be challenging at times maintaining our ability to continue to serve with our office having to close to customers three times, but our staff persevered as we continued to adapt to this ever-evolving virus. We are once again dealing with yet another period of extended drought throughout the western states with no certainty of when it will end. And it appears we are bracing for a resurgence of COVID this winter.

As I reflect, I have been blessed to work with amazing staffs of competent, dedicated, professional individuals throughout my entire career and for that I am most grateful. I owe much to so many who have helped me along the way. In closing, I am reminded of a quote from Julie Andrews. “Leave everything you do, every place you go, everything you touch a little better for your having been there.” That is what I have aspired to do throughout my career.

Happy Trails!