Water expert was first woman on Laguna Beach water commission

Prominent local attorney and longtime Laguna Beach County Water District Commissioner Susan M. Trager died Tuesday in her Laguna Beach home. She was 63.

Trager was the first woman appointed to the district board since it was founded in 1925. With more than 30 years of experience in water law, Trager had much to offer the district, which at that time was rethinking its decision to relinquish its independence to the city rather than be forced by the Orange County Local Agency Formation Committee into a shotgun wedding with South Coast Water District.

"When Susan spoke, people listened," said Renae Hinchey, district general manager. "She was confident, tenacious and persistent in making sure that Laguna Beach's water concerns were represented. She was the type of woman who, when she dedicated herself to something, really fought for what she believed in."

Although Trager lost the battle to restore the district's independence, she was able to wrest a concession that established the district as a subsidiary of the city.

"Susan fought for the subsidiary status because it enabled the district to continue to function under the government water code and to keep our assets separate," Hinchey said. "She was a force to be reckoned with."

When the transition was completed, Trager was appointed to the commission on which she served until her death.

"Her knowledge, work ethic, dedication and, most importantly, her passion for water is a huge loss to the district, Laguna Beach and the water industry," said commission Chairman Bruce Scherer. "We will miss her greatly and join her family, friends and colleagues in mourning her passing."

As a member of the commission, Trager served on four oversight committees, including those for finance, audit and emergency preparedness. She also served on the Water Supply/Santa Ana River Basin Committee and fought to regain the district's groundwater rights in the basin.

Trager was described in a press release issued by the district as a tireless worker on behalf of Laguna Beach residents who rely entirely on imported water.

She was dedicated to ensuring a reliable water supply and passionate about finding other sources than the dwindling and increasingly more expensive state allotment from Northern California and the Colorado River, Hinchey said.

Her knowledge of regulatory requirements of state and federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the regional water quality boards for Santa Ana and San Diego — along with her personal relationships with colleagues throughout the county and the state — were assets to the district, Hinchey said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, who sits with other council members on the district board of directors, counted Trager as one of her closest friends.

"She was the real deal," Pearson said. "The same passion she put into water, she extended to her garden, her art, her books, her cat and fortunately for me, her friends. For those who experienced her — and it was an experience — the world will now be a truly different place. Laguna Beach was fortunate to have her expertise on our water district commission. We all learned from her."

There was a reason Trager's license plate for years read H20Esq — "H20" the chemical formula for water, "esquire" being the designation for men and women licensed who practice law.

In addition to her commitment to the district, Trager also maintained an active law practice in partnership for the last two years with Diane R. Smith.

"We were friends for 20 or more years," Smith said.

In a tribute to Trager, posted on the company website, Smith wrote:

"Susan was one of those remarkable and few people that amazed, impressed, amused and infuriated all at the same time. Susan and I travelled, ate and shopped all over the world, and skied on a regular basis in our younger days. She became my partner two years ago, when we merged our practices into what is now Smith Trager LLP.

"She was a passionate, zealous advocate for her clients, a brutally honest and forthright colleague and a person that extracted every ounce of pleasure, curiosity and nuance from life. Her work touched almost every waterway in California …"

Born in New York in 1947, Trager spent the majority of her life in the West.

She graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in science and earned a law degree from Golden Gate University 1973, the same year she was admitted to the California bar.

A celebration of her life is being planned.

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