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Beginning in 1976, Leal served as counsel to U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations In 1982, she served as senior consultant to the California State Assembly's Committee on Ways and Means. In 1985, Leal became vice-president of a health care management company. Leal also worked as a businesswoman, a lawyer, and an investigator in state and federal governments.
Leal was appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in June 1993. She was reelected the following year to a four-year term. While serving on the Board, she chaired its Finance Committee. From 1997 to 2004, Leal served as Treasurer of San Francisco, the City's banker and chief investment officer, winning re-election in 2001 with 87% of the vote. Her duties as Treasurer also included managing all tax and revenue collection for San Francisco.In 2004, Leal was appointed General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is a regional utility that delivers water to 2.5 million customers.
After her term with the SFPUC, Leal joined Harvard as a Senior Fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative, where she researched the delivery of potable water and treatment of wastewater in communities worldwide. Her book, Running Out of Water is based on her work at Harvard.
Running Out of Water, which Leal co-authored with Harvard Professor Peter Rogers, is forward-looking book that offers a sobering perspective on the world's water crisis — why it is happening, where it is likely to strike, and what puts the worst strain on our supply. Ms. Leal now works as a consultant advising public agencies and corporations nationwide on realistic and creative solutions to the water and wastewater challenges they face.