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State water board considers resolution on racial equity

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Severiano Beltran lifts his 4-year-old daughter Nala out of the water during a squirt gun fight in June at Lake Ming. The family looked to beat the heat as temperatures reached over 100 degrees.

Racial equity may soon become a guiding principle at a powerful state agency that helps mediate water disputes and directs taxpayer investments in troubled Central Valley water systems.

A draft resolution pending before the State Water Resources Control Board would condemn systemic racism, xenophobia and white supremacy while committing the agency to making racial equity, diversity, inclusion and environmental justice central to its work.

Inspired in part by nationwide demonstrations following the May 25, 2020 in-custody death of George Floyd, the resolution is partly aimed at increasing minority representation among the board's base of employees and supervisory staff. But it would also require state actions toward dismantling systems that perpetuate racial inequities, including in project permitting, enforcement, funding and administering of water rights.

Environmental justice groups have spoken in favor of the effort, saying communities of color have suffered disproportionately from a lack of clean, safe, affordable and accessible drinking water.

"Water access in California, unfortunately, isn't equal or equitable," said Michael Claiborne, directing attorney with the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Some local farmers have taken an interest in the proposed resolution, too, but it was unclear Tuesday how they feel about it.

EMAIL NOTICE

On Monday the Kern County Farm Bureau emailed its members to notify them there's still time to offer public comments on the draft. The notices offered no opinion about the draft, and bureau officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.

The California Farm Bureau also did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did a few environmental justice organizations active in the Central Valley.

The water board and its parent agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency, also did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said by email it hasn't focused much effort on the resolution but that it supports the board's work toward racial equity.

"We generally think it's a positive step in the right direction as we are always in favor of increasing equity and representation in public agencies, particularly those that are essential to life and public health — like water," spokeswoman Jessica Gable said by email.

WIDE INFLUENCE

The State Water Board, as the agency is better known, wields influence over how California water-rights disputes are resolved. And as the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, it may exercise substantial control over how much water local agencies are allowed to pump in the years ahead.

The board also gives out money and loans for small water systems serving disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley and elsewhere.

In August, the board directed its staff to develop a racial equity resolution and host listening sessions within and outside the agency.

Since then, agency employees have uncovered internal racial disparities they say must be addressed, including their finding that, although only 43 percent of California is white, 56 percent of the board's workforce, and 68 percent of its management, is white.

'EMOTIONAL STAMINA'

At a July 7 online workshop, board employee Brittani Evans said a lot of work has gone into crafting the resolution, and that it required "a lot of emotional stamina for everyone involved."

She defined racial equity as the end of disparate outcomes based on race, as well as improvements for all groups. She emphasized equity was about fairness, not sameness.

Water Climate Trust Director Konrad Fisher, speaking at the same workshop, noted equity has long been an issue for American Indians for whom stream flows are critical for food and economic security, along with health and culture.

Fisher urged the board to look at seizure of water by non-native people, a problem he says continues to the present day.

NITRATE POLLUTION

Claiborne, with the Leadership Counsel, said in a phone interview that dry water wells, as well as contamination and high levels or arsenic and nitrates, are issues that disproportionately impact communities of color.

"There's a lot more the state board can do to make sure sources of drinking water aren't impacted by nitrates," which he noted are often associated with agricultural operations.

Adding that the board's resolution will have to be followed by action, Claiborne called for reductions in the amount of groundwater being pumped for use and greater investment in local drinking water systems.

A draft of the resolution can be found online at https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/racial_equity/docs/070721_9_drftreso.pdf.

Public comments are due Aug. 2. To submit a comment to the board, send it in an email to commentletters@waterboards.ca.gov with the subject line:  "Comment Letter: Racial Equity”. Otherwise, mail comments to Jeanine Townsend, Clerk to the Board, State Water Resources Control Board, P.O. Box 100, Sacramento, CA 95812-2000.