Municipal Water Leader
Interview

A Tribute to Dave Luker

The Benevolent Dictator 

Mark Krause
General Manager, Desert Water Agency (DWA) 

My friendship with Dave Luker started in 1986, when I hired on at Krieger & Stewart, a civil engineering firm in Riverside, California. I met Dave my first day. He assigned me a construction survey job for DWA in Palm Springs. Dave ran the survey crews and actually started the firm’s in-house survey department. He loved construction and taking part in building things. Dave also loved working with people who loved their jobs and worked hard. Dave worked his way up to partner at the firm and was instrumental in opening that opportunity up to many others who followed him. 

In 1993, Dave left the firm to work for DWA. I followed him in 1995 to continue my on-the-job education under his tutelage. Dave went to work immediately, transforming the agency. Dave hated government waste, and he wanted the agency to be efficient and thrifty, like a private company, without all the normal bureaucracy and waste. He also valued exemplary customer service and made sure we had everything to get the job done right. We worked together to expand the engineering department to produce project designs, put contracts out to bid, and perform all the construction management. We hired more engineers and purchased more equipment, and soon we were producing all our own construction drawings and performing construction surveying, too. 

It wasn’t long before Dave was made general manager and chief engineer of the agency, a position he held for 11 years. DWA continued to improve under Dave’s leadership. The operations center underwent a multimillion-dollar expansion, and he commissioned the largest solar field in the region to power it. He doubled the size of our recycled water facilities and later expanded the solar field to provide most of its power needs. 

Over the 25 years he was at the agency, he negotiated the increase of its imported water supply by a third and more than doubled our rights to local surface water sources, providing the water resources we would need in the years to come. He never stopped looking ahead and planning for the agency’s infrastructure needs by continuously adding wells, reservoirs, and transmission mains. 

The agency faced many challenges during Dave’s leadership. He loved nothing more than fighting to defend the agency against bureaucratic regulation or anything he deemed harmful. He had one of the best minds I have ever known and was a brilliant strategist; he did not often lose a fight. 

Dave was a born emergency responder. He was at his best in an emergency. You could count on Dave being the first one there and seeing it all the way through to its successful conclusion. He loved being a first responder. Quite simply, Dave was a man of action. 

Dave was my boss and the boss of many others, but he was also a mentor and friend. I never saw him turn away

anyone in need. He would often give his personal time and money to help others. Dave liked to have things done his way, like a dictator. He was tough, disagreeable at times, and could be domineering. I think he liked to project this image. Ironically, if you really knew him, he was just the opposite. He often referred to himself as our benevolent dictator. That title really did seem to describe his management style. He was understanding and patient, and those who really knew him knew that he sincerely cared about them and always had their backs. When he left, he told me, “If you ever really get in a jam, just blame it on me.” 

If you knew Dave, you knew that his family was number 1. He taught me that the best way to take care of your family was to do your job well and provide for them. He left his mark on me and everyone he knew, he changed the agency for the better, and his legacy lives on in us and in the great agency he helped build. 

Proud and Supportive 

Sylvia Baca, MMC
Assistant Secretary, DWA Board of Directors 

The first thing I learned about Dave Luker when I first started working at DWA was how proud he was, both of his family at home and of his DWA family. He always beamed with pride when he talked about his family. Pam and his daughters were his world, and soon, so were his grandkids. They kept him busy, but he couldn’t ask for anything better to do once he retired. 

He was also proud of the employees working at DWA. Whether it was the crews working out in the field or the office staff, he knew that we all represented DWA as a whole. I received many calls and letters from the public, just wanting to say how great our crews were and how professional and courteous they were. He was proud of everyone and made sure to acknowledge employees who went the extra mile. 

Those who may have dealt with a personal issue or loss, like myself, know how important it is that he made sure I knew that he “had my back” (his words). When I took time off to be with my family, he supported me. I’m grateful that we kept in touch after he retired. I’m going to miss our chats. 

An Admired Leader 

Jim Barrett
General Manager, Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) 

As general manager of DWA, Dave contributed so much to the long-term success of the Coachella Valley. Our agencies, DWA and the CVWD, work hand in hand to sustainably manage and actively replenish our region’s groundwater supplies. Dave helped the Coachella Valley lead the way to defining what a sustainable basin should look like. The programs and policies that Dave brought to our region will help sustain our resources into the future, ensuring that we can continue serving the Coachella Valley with a safe, affordable, and reliable water supply for generations to come. While I could go on about Dave’s water management– related accomplishments, there is another that should not be overlooked: the leadership of his team. When I talked to Dave’s staff, the great deal of admiration they had for him was remarkably clear. The respect he earned from his team, his board of directors, and from colleagues throughout California is a true testament to his leadership and his character. His agency, the statewide water industry, and our valley community changed for the better because of Dave’s dedication to his career. 

The Phone 

James Cioffi
Director, DWA 

Dave Luker’s number is still on my phone. 

Dave and I shared many interests, one of which was our love of baseball. My favorite memories of Dave are the trips our families made to Arizona for spring training. Often joined by our friends the Bennetts and the Stuarts, we enjoyed Dave’s commentary and immense knowledge of the sport. Dave was an Angels and Reds fan. I am a Yankee fan. Dave hated the Yankees, calling them the “Evil Empire.” I loved to annoy him by wearing my Yankee cap to our games, sometimes cocking the bill a bit sideways, which really irritated him. One day my Yankee cap disappeared. I always accused him of taking it. 

We also shared a love of collector or older cars, as long as they were Fords! I helped Dave build a shop behind his new house so he could restore his Mustang. Sadly, that project will be on hold for a while. 

Dave also had a pet peeve with people who did not answer their phones, especially if the call was from him! One day, when my time comes, I will be calling Dave’s phone. And he will answer. 

Port in the Storm 

Katie Evans
Director of Communications and Conservation, CVWD 

I have Dave to thank for a career that I love. He recognized potential in me and gave me an opportunity in the water industry that changed by life. During my time working for Dave, I learned so much about water, and I’ll be forever grateful for that, but more importantly, Dave instilled important life and leadership skills in me. He looked out for me and gave me the guidance I needed to be successful. Dave has been such an important person in my life. He was my port in the storm for more than a decade. I’ll miss him very much. 

Extreme Integrity 

Martin Krieger
Former Finance Director, DWA 

I met Dave in 1988 on a State Water Project tour that DWA sponsored. At the time, he worked for Krieger & Stewart. I spotted him with his Cincinnati Reds jacket on and knew we would get along just fine. Even though I

was a San Diego Padres fan, we spent many hours talking baseball. The agency hit a home run when it hired Dave as assistant general manager and then promoted him to general manager. Dave was knowledgeable, astute, and insightful, and he possessed extreme integrity. You always knew where Dave was coming from. There was no gray area; things were strictly black and white. He spoke his mind and was a larger-than-life personality. 

Dave always put the agency first in his dealings and was always looking ahead to its future. Dave adored the staff and was extremely proud of them. He was admired and respected by many in the industry, and he cultivated many lasting relationships. Although he left this earth way too early, he definitely left his mark in the world. He will truly be missed, and I am grateful for the time I was given to know him and have him in my life. 

The Best Kind of Boss 

Ashley Metzger
Outreach and Conservation Manager, DWA 

I first met Dave while producing a video for DWA. He made it clear that he didn’t relish his time in front of the camera. When he hired me to join the DWA team, I learned that he was more of a behind-the-scenes guy. I’ll always appreciate the short time we worked together. 

He took me into the fold and made me feel welcome and valued immediately. Dave supported me and encouraged me to remember the importance of my life outside the office. It was clear that his family meant the world to him. 

When it came to work, he always set me up for success, and he left DWA better off, because that’s how he managed. He was the best kind of boss there is: a coach. 

A Great American 

Ron Starrs
Former Director, DWA 

While Dave Luker was a great leader in the water industry and had a great impact on the people he served, his greatest legacy was his love and devotion to his family. Also, Dave was a great American who loved his country. 

Strong Values, Big Heart 

Mike Riddell
Partner, Best Best & Krieger 

I think some folks may have seen Dave Luker as outspoken and obstinate. He was not someone who would just go with the flow or who suffered fools lightly. What he looked for in people and what he offered to others were some fundamental values: honesty, integrity, a measure of humility, a willingness to work for what you received, and the strength to stand up for what you believed to be right. If Dave could see those qualities in you, it did not matter to him what you looked like, where you were from, what you sounded like, or what your gender was. As a manager he would advance people who were not self-promoters if he respected what he saw in them. You could make a mistake, and it would be okay, so long as you owned up to it and hung onto the values that he recognized to be important. He helped a lot of people along the way, gaining their love and respect. I’m sure it would be difficult for many of them to find words adequate to express what they feel. For them he will never be gone. 

Dave Luker with two DWA staff members.

An Unforgettable Character 

Joseph K. Stuart
Secretary/Treasurer, DWA Board of Directors 

Many years ago, when I was a youngster, my parents subscribed to Reader’s Digest. This was in the 1960s, long before the digital age and social media. Once my parents had read the periodical, I would have the chance to peruse it and read one of my favorite features. It was entitled “My Most Unforgettable Character” and was authored by people, some famous, about someone who had had a remarkable impact on their lives. 

Dave Luker, known throughout the Palm Springs, California, area as the general manager, was such an individual. I met Dave through mutual acquaintances, and thereafter, we became good friends and golfing buddies. Once I retired, Dave was instrumental in my immersion in the local water industry, first as a consultant and later as a member of the DWA board of directors. 

Dave was opinionated and did not mince words when expressing his view of a situation or the world in general. It was a refreshing and often humorous event to hear him discuss a topic. He had an imposing physical presence, paired with a larger-than-life voice that at full volume was impressive, to say the least. Although he could appear gruff to the uninitiated, I once described him to a friend as an armor-plated marshmallow. 

DWA and its employees were so special to Dave. We have lost a great natural leader in Dave and are poorer for that loss. We can, however, recall our favorite memories of interactions with Dave and be thankful that our lives intersected with Dave’s, as we are surely richer for that experience. 

Love of Country, Love of Craft, Love of Family 

Bob Reed 

I first met Dave in December 2004 at an Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) conference. I was leaving ACWA at the end of the month to establish my state lobbying firm. Over the course of 2 days, Dave and I became kindred spirits, and after meeting with several of his board members, DWA became my first client. 

Dave was patriot who often spoke of his love and support for our country. He regarded himself as a defender of individual rights, especially our Second Amendment. He organized friends to provide eye protection to my son and his squad when they were deployed to Afghanistan in the early years of the War on Terror. He sent care packages to my son and inquired about him often. Dave was proud of our military.

Dave was dedicated to craft as general manager. He expected every employee to take pride in their work and to always represent the agency as he did—with pride, focus on detail, and dedication to the public good. I remember walking through the meter and equipment inventory warehouse on my first visit to DWA headquarters. One could literally eat off the floor, it was so clean. He would have it no other way. 

Dave was passionate about many things, including playing dominoes as a member of the Palm Springs Club. He was a fan of the Cincinnati Reds and the Dallas Cowboys. We had a lot of fun poking at each other’s teams—me a San Francisco Giants and San Francisco 49ers fan. Dave was passionate about his family. Most professionals I know, myself included, find it difficult to balance work and family. But that never seemed to be an issue for Dave. He loved caring and providing for his wife, his daughters, and his grandchildren. 

I miss him terribly. 

Dave Luker, Determined 

Tom Kieley III
Former Director, DWA 

Dave Luker’s determination in all aspects of his life truly set him apart in this world. He was determined to be an engineer, a daunting task for anyone. The challenge for Dave was even greater: He was a mustang. Not able to finish his college education, Dave decided that he would simply teach himself. He bought the books and would study late at night until he was ready to sit for the Engineer in Training exam, which he passed through sheer determination. And he continued to work and study hard until he also passed his Professional Engineer exam and the land surveyor test. 

Dave was a young engineer working with Krieger & Stewart, a Riverside engineering firm, when our paths first crossed. He was energetic and not one to turn down a tough assignment, determined to become a partner in the firm. I was on the DWA board in 1992, and we were drilling a new well not far from my home. One sleepless night, I decided to wander over to the well site to see how the drilling was going. There was Dave, hard hat and gloves on, flashlight in hand, intently inspecting and logging the drill material. Dave was there that night and every night until the well was completed. It wasn’t because Dave was a night owl that he took that long, overnight shift. Dave had trouble staying awake for 9 innings of an evening baseball game (unless it was his beloved Cincinnati Reds). No, Dave was bound and determined to show his boss that he had the right stuff to be a partner. 

Dave did make partner and began doing more and more work for DWA. He was incredibly loyal to the agency and especially its general manager, Jack Oberle. Jack was determined, too. He was determined to hire Dave as the agency’s chief engineer. Dave came on board, and the future of DWA was on the road. Despite some bumps and potholes, Dave was determined to become general manager, a position he held until his retirement. 

Dave was deeply committed to his family, his country, and his friends. He was quietly generous with his time, his talent, and his money. He never turned his back on anyone in need and was always the first to reach into his wallet to help. Dave may have gone on ahead, but for those of us left behind, we will always remember his courage and determination, his love of family and country, and we are all better off for having known Dave and called him friend.