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A Look at Water Equity through the California Water Leaders Program

According to the US Water Alliance, “water equity promotes the provision of reliable, safe, and accessible water services for all.” However, there are at least 1 million Californians living without access to clean, safe drinking water and many more across the country.

Vanessa De Anda, Water Resources Planner, spent last year examining this topic with the 2021 cohort of the California Water Leaders Program. De Anda is the fourth Woodard & Curran employee to enroll in this program, which brings together entry to mid-level professionals in stakeholder groups across the water industry to learn about water issues, gain leadership skills, and learn to make active, cooperative decisions regarding water resource issues.

There are three main components to the program – mentorship, facility tours, and a final report. De Anda’s mentor worked for a public agency, providing her with different insight on the issues she works with daily as a planner. The tours occurred virtually, but the ability to see actual systems in California provided a new perspective on the magnitude of each facility. The 2021 class was assigned the topic of water equity for their research and final report, which was then presented to the Water Environment Foundation Board and published online by the California Water Leaders Program.

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Persephene St. Charles National Practice Leader Water Resources

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As a water resources planner, I work mostly with other planners. The California Water Leaders Program sounded like a great opportunity to work with engineers, policy advocates, attorneys, and other professionals with the same focus on water.

Vanessa De Anda Water Resources Planner Water Resources

Achieving water equity

California was the first state to declare access to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water as a basic human right. However, the class’s final report entitled Achieving Water Equity in California: Restructuring Water Management, Governance, and Engagement notes that “water inequity is rooted in political, economic and social dynamics,” starting with the fact that most California’s water resources are located north of Sacramento, while the majority of the population lives south of the metropolis.

As a group, they outlined the following five recommendations to improve water equity:

  • Increase emphasis on the Human Right to Water in existing California programmatic requirements, governance structures, roles, and responsibilities.
  • Encourage, enhance, and promote direct community membership, engagement and involvement in water governance and management.
  • Identify and support partnerships between neighboring, related or otherwise interconnected water systems and agencies to best meet their communities’ needs.
  • Focus mechanisms such as funding, policy, and programs on accessibility to safe drinking water for marginalized populations.
  • State and local governments should create funding mechanisms and remove barriers to support affordable water through legislative action and constitutional reform.

De Anda joined a subset of the group who focused on the fifth recommendation. Specifically, she researched how water agencies could use general revenue not derived from the sale of water, such as rental income, for water rate discount programs. This idea is often passed over because agencies are concerned that using revenue from leasing or renting property or equipment to fund water affordability programs may result in legal challenges due to provisions in California’s Proposition 218, which says property related fees or charges for services must be proportional to the cost of providing those services. In other words, an agency cannot charge more in one part of its service area to subsidize the cost for another. De Anda proposed the legislation should be amended or a new law enacted to explicitly state that water agencies can indeed use rental income to fund water assistance programs in perpetuity. Working alongside attorneys and policy advocates, however, she realizes this action is a major hurdle to overcome toward improving water equity.

De Anda also explored with her cohort how the choice of wording matters when defining terminology and making recommendations. She said, “When we talk about water equity, we often use the term disadvantaged communities (DACs). The term oversimplifies the factors that have led to water inequity and does not acknowledge that these groups have not acted in a way to place themselves in a position of inequity. It’s not just that these communities are disadvantaged, they have been systematically marginalized. We decided to use the term ‘marginalized populations’ in the report to point of structural and systematic forces that have reinforced water inequity.”

Seeing the program in projects

“Since I joined Woodard & Curran, I have been working on the Los Angeles County Water Plan,” De Anda said. “We are developing a regional plan that articulates a path for achieving safe, clean, and reliable water resources in Los Angeles County. It was interesting to see how we addressed water equity in the program and how it parallels with the work I’m doing for our client.”

De Anda also is noticing a change in mindset as she approaches her work tasks. While it is easy to default to a planner mentality, the diverse backgrounds in the leadership program have pushed her to consider other approaches. Working with a mentor in a public agency, she was exposed to a different perspective on the issue of water supply, quality, and rates. She specifically had to spend more time considering how rates impact water equity, and rather than be aspirational, the attorneys in the group pushed her to be more realistic. She also has a greater appreciation for the magnitude of water treatment systems having spent so much time in her career only considering the systems used to transport water.

“The program was a great opportunity to work with professionals across sectors,” De Anda said. “It’s a neat perspective that we don’t get just from writing a water resources plan.”

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