Carl Boronkay: A Giant Passes in California Water

  • by Timothy Quinn
  • Jul 7, 2017
  • Voices on Water

There are people throughout history who leave huge impacts on our world, yet receive scant recognition. Carl Boronkay is one of these people. Carl passed on July 5.  Like others who knew Carl well and worked with him closely, I can confidently say that a true giant has passed.

Carl’s vision while he was at the helm of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is one of the primary reasons California was able to endure the recent five-year drought and still maintain an economy that grew faster than the national average. His mark on California water is indelible. Let me explain.

For the near-decade he served as general manager of MWD (from 1984-1993), Carl cast the biggest shadow in California and western water. Carl understood the true ramifications of the 1982 voter defeat of the peripheral canal. He was the first to recognize that relying solely on imported water would no longer work. Diversified local supplies were needed to ensure Southern California’s future. This understanding was solidified by the 1987-1992 drought and it shaped Carl’s tenure at MWD. Toward the end of that drought, Carl dispatched staff (that would have been me) to develop the 1991 Drought Water Bank.  The Bank was a huge success and helped avert disaster, even though rationing was still required. It left a lasting impression in the mind of Carl Boronkay.  Carl had the courage and built the necessary team to develop a diversified supply that included local storage, recycling, aggressive water conservation, water marketing, and other tools. These tools were well developed for the recent, historic drought, and they protected California’s $2 trillion economy and our unique California way of life. For that, we can thank Carl Boronkay’s vision and leadership three decades ago.

Carl also was at the center of powerful political change in the water arena – and this made him highly controversial. Under his leadership, MWD supported the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and other measures that increased awareness that protecting California’s environment should be a critical objective of water policy. He also was a leader in building north-south and interstate urban coalitions. Additionally, he was perhaps the biggest advocate of water marketing among California water managers at a time when marketing was far less popular than it is today. All of this made Carl as reviled in some places as he was revered in others. On balance, there is no denying that Carl Boronkay had the courage and vision to step out with his beliefs – no matter how controversial – so he could work to strengthen California’s water system. He was a truly great water leader.

But for me, there also is a deeply personal side to this story.  Carl was instrumental in guiding me toward a career in water that I never envisioned as a possibility. I don’t know what Carl saw in the 33-year-old economist at the RAND Corporation that I was in the mid-1980s. That young economist had completed a dissertation on water and had been bitten by the water bug.  But he had no desire to work in a water utility. Nevertheless, his phone rang one day in July of 1985 and on the other end was Myron Holburt, assistant general manager at MWD, calling at Carl’s request. A couple of days later I was lunching with Carl and Myron in the now-gone Velvet Turtle near the old Sunset headquarters of MWD. My life would never be the same. Thus started a decades-long career in water, launched by a man who saw something in a young economist.

Carl was a great boss. He challenged you, made sure you had the resources to get the job done, and backed you up. Upon his retirement, he became a great and valued friend.  We would often go for dinner and talk about our families and California water – he never lost interest.  I have quite a bit of mileage left, but let’s face it, I am much closer to the end of my career than to the beginning. It makes you kind of retrospective.    Like Carl, I have not been a stranger to controversy– in either my MWD or ACWA years. This 30-plus year career has been enormously rewarding to me personally — and I like to think that California is on balance better off for the changes that Carl envisioned, and that his staff, including that young economist, worked hard to implement. It has been a great ride — and I owe it all to one man. His name was Carl Boronkay.  He passed away on July 5, 2017 at the age of 88.  We will not see his equal again.

Executive Director Timothy Quinn may be reached at

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