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Debbie Neev: a passion for water, among other things

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” Although this quote can’t be attributed to Debbie Neev, it is a true reflection of her passion for water. A geophysical engineer, Neev champions water conservation, water reliability and educational outreach and has done so for many years.

For more than two decades, she’s served on the Laguna Beach County Water District Commission, but the commitment doesn’t stop there – that’s just the beginning.

She’s also represented Laguna Beach and our Water District by serving on the South Orange County Watershed Management Area Executive Committee, the statewide organization Cal Desal and the Association of California Water Agencies’ Groundwater Committee.

Debbie Neev closeup

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Debbie Neev

Although water is still her first love, Neev is passionate about many things, and it is inherent in her community activities – and there are many. In 2015, she was appointed to the Design Review Board, serving as their liaison on the Affordable Housing Task Force. She also currently serves on the board and is an officer for both Glennwood House and the Woman’s Club. In addition, she is well known for her involvement with various other community organizations, such as SchoolPower, the Soroptimists, Ebell and volunteering at the Assistance League Thrift Shop.

As readers know by now, Neev has been selected as Woman of the Year for 2023 by the Woman’s Club, and she will be honored at a luncheon on June 23.

“The Woman’s Club members nominate – and then vote for – a woman from our community who has made a significant contribution in the community, either through philanthropic, civic, charitable or nonprofit activities,” said Kitty Malcolm, Woman’s Club president.

From Colorado to California

A 30-year resident of Laguna, Neev came to California from Colorado. “I went to school at the Colorado School of Mines, which is a very strong engineering school. I did geophysical engineering and then transitioned into environmental engineering,” she said.

“After my husband got his Ph.D., he did his postdoc at Beckman Laser Institute at the University of California, Irvine, and I got a job working for an environmental consulting firm in Long Beach – that brought us to California,” Neev said. “We first lived on the UCI campus and then we started looking for a place. California is where we wanted to stay, so we were looking from Long Beach to as far south as we could go. Then, in the meantime, I got pregnant, so our requirements changed when we found out I was having twins. We never thought we’d be able to afford to live in Laguna, and then we found a foreclosure and we snatched it up.”

A physicist, her husband has his own business and travels back and forth to Israel. “My son Matthew was over there with him doing research and recently came back,” Neev said. “Zachary is an accountant and Matthew is hoping to get a job with the city or county.”

Debbie Neev water district

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The Water District, her home away from home

“Matthew and Zachary went all through school here and loved it,” she said. “The school system is wonderful. Zachary still talks about his third grade teacher at Top of the World, Mrs. Hustwick. She used to read Greek mythology to them, which I didn’t know until we went to Paris and he could identify the Greek statues. Here was this third grader saying, ‘That one is so and so, and that one is so and so.’”

Neev said her biggest accomplishment, and what she is most proud of, is her family.

From consulting to the Water Commission

“While I was with the consulting firm, we did a lot of environmental cleanup and wastewater treatment,” Neev said. “When I saw the advertisement in the paper here that they were looking for commissioners, I thought it would be really interesting to see it from that perspective, not from the consultant’s perspective. The firm that I was with worked for different water districts and cities, so I knew quite a bit about the infrastructure.

“I thought it would be wonderful to be able to apply that knowledge and be on the commission. It was my first love and still is and I really enjoy it. Then quite a few years later, I was appointed to the Design Review Board. I was also on the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which was an appointment by Governor Schwarzenegger. That lasted three or four years.”

Nonprofits

Even with her commitment to the environment, Neev has found time over the years to devote to nonprofits, taking into consideration their focus and approach to giving.

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“I got involved with the Woman’s Club – I was attracted to it for the work that they were doing,” Neev said. “Then I got to know Kitty Malcolm, who is a force, and some of the other board members, and it was apparent just how serious they were about changing the approach and really stepping it up, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Debbie Neev window

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Thinking about the future of the planet?

Although Tarnished Treasures, their holiday fundraiser to support Adopt-A-Family, was popular, it wasn’t a money maker. “We had to step this up so we could give at the level that we wanted to give. We would look at other organizations and ask how they did this with their big fundraising events. Yet we wanted to keep it affordable for members, so we weren’t going to start raising the dues. Kitty, who is a great leader, has just taken the bull by the horns and was instrumental in initiating the Paddle Raise.”

However, Neev emphasized that they want to go beyond supplying gifts at holidays and backpacks to school kids. “These families need help all year, and we want to extend that to give scholarships for swimming lessons, summer camp and reading programs through the recreation department.” Woman’s Club also provides scholarships for LBHS students. (They also have many other giving programs.)

Debbie Neev at desk

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At work in the Water District office

“I got involved with Glennwood House through Maggi and Richard Henrikson. I used to work with Richard at the same engineering firm years ago,” Neev said. “We reconnected with them because their son Nick was friends with Matthew when he was on the cross country team at LBHS. Maggi and Richard were instrumental in the development of Glennwood House. I recommended it to one of my friends, whose son is still a resident there. About six years ago, I was approached by the president of the board since they wanted to expand the board beyond the parents of the residents. That’s when I joined the board. Jeff and Carla Meberg are also very involved with Glennwood House. He’s chairman of PMMC, which is the second largest water user in the city, right after the city. We helped them get a grant for the wastewater recycling. We’re all interconnected, and it takes a village. It’s going to be a great education for kids. I get excited about school children being able to see and understand the process – how the dirty water will drain out of the pools, go into this system and then come out clean.”

Neev recalls the 1980s, a time when the U.S. was becoming more environmentally conscious. “The Clean Water Act, passed in 1976, was starting to get some teeth, there was more and more legislation and the hammer got bigger and bigger as far as fines for pollution,” she said. “We were becoming aware of air and water quality – these distinct areas that needed so much attention – and how precious it was. I was with an environmental firm, and we started looking more and more toward that groundwater cleanup, which sort of goes hand in hand with soil cleanup and all of that, so I became very interested in it through my profession.

“My son Zach says, ‘You know human beings are killing the planet.’ I would say, ‘yeah we are,’ but I’m optimistic we’ll find solutions.”

Woman of the Year

“I feel so grateful to have fallen into the profession I fell into,” said Neev. “It was amazing to be part of the environmental movement in the ‘80s.”

Fun facts about the Woman of the Year:

–If she hadn’t gone into geophysical engineering, she would have become a math teacher.

–In her spare time, if there is such a thing, she loves to travel.

–What may surprise readers is that she was a runner in high school.

As for being chosen as the 2023 Woman of the Year by the Woman’s Club for her commitment to the community, with more than a little emotion, she said, “I choose organizations and how to spend my time very carefully. It’s what’s important to me, so to be recognized for something you care about is beyond words.”

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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