California Water Czar Seeks Resource Collaboration, Not Combat

Oct. 8, 2019, 10:00 AM

For E. Joaquin Esquivel, California has made great strides in fighting climate change and transitioning to a cleaner energy sector.

Now, he said, it’s water’s turn.

“Water, I think, is ready for that moment,” said Esquivel, the chairman of the California State Water Resources Control Board who took over from longtime chair Felicia Marcus in February.

The board has a broad mandate to oversee water resources and drinking water for the protection of the environment, public health, and other uses. That includes managing water rights and dealing with rural water issues, the latter of which is the topic of an Oct. 8 webinar on which Esquivel is speaking.

Esquivel, 37, was named chairman by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in February, two months after the board ordered changes to water management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that angered agriculture interests, who said it would mean more water for fish and less for people.

Newsom at the time said Esquivel was the person to balance the state’s myriad water needs, from providing water to cities, to farms, and for the environment.

“We need a portfolio approach to building water infrastructure and meeting long-term demands,” Newsom said.

In his time as chairman, Esquivel has traveled much of the state and to Washington, meeting with local, state, and federal players about the Salton Sea, cross-border contamination from Mexico, sustainability, agricultural needs, drought planning, and using technology to better manage water resources.

He also led the board when it established a rule to better protect wetlands and establish a safe and affordable drinking water program that would provide $1.3 billion over 10 years for water for nearly 1 million residents whose supplies are contaminated.

“Joaquin has both the opportunity, and I think the charge, from Governor Newsom to recraft the conversation between parties traditionally in conflict,” said Dave Puglia, executive vice president of Western Growers, an association that advocates for family farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. “I think the governor found the right person for a really tough task.”

Numerous Issues

Aside from the drinking water fund, the water czar has a lot to oversee.

A multiyear study to find the source of contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, is underway. Reusing water, ensuring cannabis cultivation doesn’t harm drinking water or wildlife, and regulating groundwater use are also part of his charge. A controversial plan to build two water delivery tunnels is now back on the table, but slimmed down.

The water board’s parent agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency, also has been charged with working with the Natural Resources Agency and Department of Food and Agriculture to plan for water needs and resiliency efforts for the 21st century.

“The complexities of the issues are pretty astronomical,” Esquivel said. “Climate change will make more difficult the ability to deliver clean and affordable drinking water.”

Public Service Career

Much of Esquivel’s career has been in public service and politics. He was born and raised in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, where water scarcity and air pollution problems persist. Esquivel earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He spent two years in the early 2000s as a center youth manager for Gay Associated Youth in Palm Desert and then went to work as an unpaid intern for former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in Washington.

The office staff liked him so much that the next paid job that came open was his. The English major became the systems administrator, overseeing technology and email initiatives.

“I was not a tech giant and Joaquin had this amazing faculty for learning and understanding everything,” Boxer said. “He was so smart and so good we started to give him different issues.”

Over his eight years with the senator, water policy and tribal issues were added to his duties. Esquivel left Boxer’s office in 2015 to become assistant secretary for federal water policy for the California Natural Resources Agency. He was appointed to the Water Resources Control Board in 2017.

‘He’s a Friendly Guy’

Esquivel has a partisan background, but he’s open-minded, approachable, and pragmatic, Puglia said.

“That means a lot in a state where we’ve had plenty of water conflict and still do,” he said. Puglia is also vice chairman of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center Advisory Council, of which Esquivel is a member.

Farmers and water regulators don’t always get along in California. State and federal authorities oversee water allocations and storage through a complex system of dams, reservoirs, wetlands, rivers, conveyance tunnels, and hydropower facilities.

Two-thirds of the precipitation falls in the northern part of the state, but two-thirds of the population lives in the dryer south. People and crops need water, and so does the ecosystem to support fish, wildlife, and habitat. Agriculture likely will have to fallow, or abandon, 500,000 acres of farm and ranch land as part of state orders to protect groundwater aquifers following California’s 2011 to 2015 drought.

“I think he’s interested in what people have to say,” California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade said. “He’s a friendly guy. He’s accessible.”

More Technology Use

Esquivel, who in his spare time likes to code programs for his home utilities and even for his fish tank, wants to foster more use of technology at the water board, to make the agency more efficient and able to respond to current conditions, including weather.

“I think he recognizes that there’s fast, cheaper, smarter ways of getting some of these projects done rather than the water quality control plan that was adopted in December,” Wade said.

Wade said it hopes Esquivel will be able to make changes, “but the water board is more than just the chairman. Getting big change is difficult. It moves at the speed of government.”

Esquivel doesn’t flinch at acknowledging the board could do things better and pay attention to other issues.

“We’re not always good at understanding complex systems,” he said during a meeting earlier this year.

For him, it’s time for the water-wars mindset to end.

“The story of western water is the taking and the fighting,” Esquivel said. “The reality is it’s sharing. That’s the real story—the collaboration of water.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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