When Don Mills graduated from Cal Poly in 1973, he moved back to the family farm in Kings County, intent on helping his father and uncle run the operation.
But fate stepped in and Mills, a crop science major, was swept into the water business.
Unbeknownst to him, the property he had purchased near Hanford made him eligible for a seat on the Lakeside Irrigation Water District board.
“That’s what started it right there,” Mills said in a phone interview. “In this business, if you’re interested and want to learn more, it will suck you in and never let you go because there’s always something going on.”
Mills recently retired from Lakeside after 50 years of service, an almost-final chapter on a lengthy
career on several local and state water boards. Retiring from Lakeside also meant that he had to relinquish his seat on the board of Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), where he served seven years as chairman.
“You won’t have me to kick around anymore,” Mills said to uproarious laughter at December’s Greater Kaweah meeting. An embittered Richard Nixon famously uttered those words at his final press conference as California Governor in 1962 after losing his bid for re-election. Coincidentally, Nixon’s later chapter as U.S President ended about the time Mills attended his first water meeting.
Mills is known for his dry humor, often peppering meetings with jokes and jabs that lighten an oft somber mood. Recently, he referred to himself and other downstream Kaweah River users as “the ugly second cousins.”
“If we lose our sense of humor, we’re done,” he said. “A lot of this business is not funny, so I try to keep it light. We take care of the muddy, grimy stuff in closed session so that in open session we don’t have to depress the rest of the world.”
He’s had lots of time to fine-tune his delivery. During a half-century in water, Mills has represented Kings County on a number of boards, including the Kings County Water Commission and the Kings County Water District, where his board seat turned into a 15-year stint as general manager. (Son Dennis Mills is now in that spot). He also served as Region 6 representative on the Association of California Water Agencies.
Mills joined the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District in the early 1980s, where he served as chairman. The agency manages the 340,000 acres in the Kaweah River watershed in most of Tulare County and parts of Kings County. He’ll remain on that board.
“I plan on hanging around until I can’t remember where the office is or I’m caught drooling in the corner,” he said. “We’ve got a great track record, and I don’t mind being part of that.”
Mills said raising the spillway by 21 feet at Terminus Dam on Lake Kaweah is one project he is most proud of.
Through the years, Mills has witnessed the ebb and flow of California water politics, most notably the shift from relentless groundwater overdraft to pumping and surface water cutbacks.
He misses those earlier days of his career, and blames the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed into law in 2014, for taking the fun out of the business.
“We used to build stuff,” he said. “We always had overdraft, which we would solve with surface water importation. What we used to solve on the supply side of the equation, with SGMA we must now solve on the demand side.”
Mills has put his stamp on the water industry in other ways, including mentoring younger leaders.
He ticked off several names, including Mark Larsen, general manager of Greater Kaweah GSA who led Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District for several years, Shawn Corley, general manager of Lakeside, and Aaron Fukuda, general manager at Tulare Irrigation District and interim general manager of Mid-Kaweah GSA.
Fukuda said he initially met Mills, an avid tennis player, when Mills became his tennis coach.
“When I let him know that I wanted to be an engineer (I think he realized my tennis career was not going to carry me) he advised me that the water field would be a good choice,” Fukuda wrote in an email.
He praised Mills as a man interested in building up the community with a can-do attitude.
Clinton Church of Hanford has stepped into Mills’ seat on both Lakeside and Greater Kaweah boards, as the GSA directors serve at the pleasure of their appointive governing board.
Greater Kaweah GSA will elect a chair, vice chair and secretary at its Jan. 8 2024 meeting, an election held annually.