E. Joaquin Esquivel: New California Water Board Chair on Re-envisioning State Water Priorities


The California State Water Resources Control Board is charged with preserving, enhancing, and restoring the state’s water resources. From the Water Resilience Portfolio to the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, E. Joaquin Esquivel—who was appointed Chair by Governor Newsom in February of 2019—in this interview shares his thoughts on California's investments in clean drinking water and the potential for data and technological innovation to improve water management in the state. Chair Esquivel shares his perspective on the critical importance of local management of watersheds in ensuring all Californian’s have access to safe, drinkable water.

As the new chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, appointed to succeed Felicia Marcus by California Governor Newsom, what water policy priorities should the public expect may change as a result of a generational change in State leadership?

In sectors throughout the state—and particularly in water—there can sometimes be a cynicism that it's always more of the same. But when I look at the Newsom administration and the challenges that the state is facing—whether it's climate change, our challenged watersheds— or the aging infrastructure they're based on—it’s obvious we can’t have more of the same. The challenges are often a legacy issue, not having understood correctly the watershed or the resource that's being managed at point in the past. For example, the legacy of mercury contamination throughout the state is a vestige of early mining activities that took place, and the physical changes wrought to our watersheds due to those activities are all part of these compounded challenges. Those are complex legacies that we’re inheritors of.

Whether it's the challenges around climate change, aging infrastructure, or these complex legacies, it requires an acknowledgement that—despite the cynicism that it's always more of the same—the administration is committed to better understand how we got to where we are on the bureaucratic side. It requires understanding the agencies’ and the state’s roles as opposed to the local roles.

In water management, local leadership is so critical. Eighty-five percent of water investments are made on the local level by people in those watersheds and communities that are dependent upon the resource. The Newsom administration brings an awareness of those complexities. Then it’s about trying to articulate how we move forward while fully acknowledging the challenges of what we've inherited. Water has always been such a huge part of that story. That story of reconciling the systems we’ve inherited.

Your predecessors—both the governor and former Water Board Chair—left behind a foundational 5-year California Water Action Plan. What relating to that plan might be changed or reprioritized by the Newsom administration going forward?

We are trying to synthesize what was done best. When we look at the last drought and the Brown administration—which I was previously a member of as well—there's a proud narrative there. California weathered the greatest drought in its recorded history and came out the other end stronger as an economy and wiser about its water use. We saw a 25 percent reduction in water use by all Californians, and a lot of that was captured in the California Water Action Plan because the previous administration brought together and tried to synthesize what actions we needed to take in order to address the drought that we were in the teeth of.

In California, we've gone from droughts to floods, and it can be seen in the way that we've developed our water systems. We know that the whole water system will shift. When you look at the California Water Action Plan, there’s an emphasis on groundwater management, conservation, and achieving the human right to water by ensuring all Californians have access to clean and safe drinking water.

Governor Newsom's water portfolio is an evolution of that collection of good things we needed to do, but importantly, it's about the interconnections of all that work. How do you pursue the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), improve water quality, address the needs of communities suffering from a lack of clean, safe drinking water, and take advantage of flood flows all in the same breath? We, as a state and as an administration, are looking to better understand the intersectionality of all of that great work. It isn't about re-envisioning it as much as it is about further distilling it into actions that we can take as state agencies and actions that will continue to be taken by Californians and communities throughout the state.

We continue to try to find a more rational way for all of us to engage in these watersheds. We hope the water resilience portfolio will do that and be the synthesis of so much of the great leadership that we've already seen in the state and will certainly need to see a lot more of in the years to come given the challenges we face.

Joaquin, pivoting to a sweet spot for you—at least according to Senator Boxer—how will the state board promote, accelerate, and use data and technology to advance the Water Board’s agenda in California?

Having been Senator Barbara Boxer’s IT Director for a number of years, I was very fortunate to have a foot on the policy side and a foot on the administrative side at the same time. It was rewarding having administrative projects that contributed to the fundamental workings of a modern organization by best utilizing data systems and, more importantly, the human interactions between systems and users, to get more out of less.

With a staff of 70 or so—including all of our state staff—we had to use technology in the senator's office in order to be able and represent the 40 million people in California; a staff of 70 is not an agency of 2000 like the State Board. The commonality though, is about better serving Californians by leveraging advances in technology and data systems.

We here at the State Water Board are a fee-based agency. We go to our regulated community and ask them to pay us for the pleasure of regulating them. It feels, at least, that we are not easily over-resourced. I think that improving the State Water Board’s core competency in IT, around its 68 different enterprise systems and beginning to embrace, understand, and work within that space is an incredible opportunity.

When you look at the regulatory work that we do—from water quality and drinking water regulation, to administration of the water rights system—we are nothing but a data-driven organization and have been for a long time. I like to think that with some reinvestment into the water rights database systems that we have, the drinking water and water quality data systems, and creating greater interoperability between them all, we can yield huge benefits to how we derive the outcomes that the State Board is charged to steward.

The Board passed an open data resolution that has guided some work over the last year and a half, including an inventory of all the data that's coming into the State Board. Whether it's data from a regulated entity because of a permit requirement under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or a water rights holder recording their previous diversions from the year, we aim to have a complete catalog for the first time—an index, if you will—of where those data touchpoints are. From there we’re identifying where data then goes to in our systems and find out what happens to it: does it become a core part of a decision-making process? Does it just sit there? Does it go back out to the public in some open format? It’s important, and we've done a lot of work to create ‘flat’ files from the data thus far  and are currently publishing those on data.ca.gov.

I don't think I could talk about this work without also lauding that California passed AB 1755, the Open and Transparent Water Data Act in 2017. It directs the State Water Board—with its sister agency the Department of Water Resources—to come up with standards and improve the openness and transparency of the state's water data in order to facilitate greater decision making. As we engage in a lot of this work internally at the State Board, we're really fortunate to have incredible partners throughout the state, at the Department of Water Resources, GovOps, and other sister agencies. Also externally, we have partners at water agencies, nonprofits and academia who are also interested in California’s journey to making the state’s water data better, understandable, knowable, and discoverable to float all boats, if you will, when it comes to the improvements and work that can be done.

As an example, the United Kingdom recently committed to LIDAR scanning the entire country and providing the high resolution data for free throughout the country in order to facilitate modeling and mapping of groundwater, pollution, stormwater, etc. This data can benefit the regulatory side—certainly in the work that we do—but it can actually have far greater benefits in the hands of locals who are struggling to implement groundwater sustainability plans and with locals who are the day-to-day managers and leaders of water in our communities.

Moving to clean drinking water, the governor signed, this past summer, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund (SB 200) to provide $1.3 billion for addressing contaminated water supplies throughout the state. Update our readers on how this fund is being deployed?

Governor Newsom, in signing the legislation earlier this summer, said that this was some of his proudest work in this budget cycle. The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund addresses the embarrassing fact that California has over a million individuals without access to clean and safe drinking water. It was a top priority to finally get across the finish line. As chair, I feel fortunate to be at the board at a time when we have this resource. I really feel that it complements a record of leadership from the State Board on these issues since the Division of Drinking Water was brought over only about five years ago.

In that time, the State Board has accrued and developed a great amount of understanding of what works and what doesn't, especially with communities that are struggling to provide safe and clean and safe drinking water. Oftentimes, they’re small communities that don't have the ratepayer base in order to absorb high costs of treatment for contaminants that are sometimes man made, man-contributed, or naturally occurring.

In that time—particularly with the Division of Financial Assistance—we saw that we could spend a lot of capital dollars going into a small system and still not solve the issue. Federal grants for example might go to installing a new drinking water system and cleaning up arsenic or other contaminants and, within a few years, those systems are no longer functioning because there isn't an adequate ratepayer base to provide for the operation and maintenance of the facilities. There's a core need there, and the Safe and Affordable Fund is for and was thought of to fill that need.

It's a resource that accompanies capital dollars--we have the Clean and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, there are bond dollars and technical assistance dollars. Additionally, it accompanies a tremendous amount of leadership from the legislature who, since the Division of Drinking Water came to us, has given the State Board additional authorities—like mandatory consolidation and ‘stop the bleeding’ legislation—which allows us to have a little more of a say when a small system is looking to develop but an extension of service of a larger system is a better and more durable option.

The State Water Board regulates over 3000 water systems throughout the state,  but there are more than 7000 public water systems if you include those that serve less than 25 connections, which the State Board doesn’t regulate.

When we talk about priorities and about what the Safe and Affordable Fund will do, these funds will allow us to commingle other capital dollars with technical assistance dollars for greater regionalization. These funds aren't to subsidize small failing systems in perpetuity but to get them to self-sufficiency. With these operation and maintenance dollars, you can start to see how groups of systems can come together, create regionalization, and be more sustainable and have a chance to solve their challenges in long term.

LA County is currently in the process of implementing Measure W, the stormwater parcel tax passed last fall, which provides about $300 million a year for stormwater capture projects however concerns over stormwater reuse and liability have delayed some of those efforts. Can you comment on where the state is in terms of enforcing MS4 stormwater permits?

Specifically when it comes to MS4 and stormwater permit implementation, it's something that the Board continues to focus on; it's important, and we know that stormwater flows can be seen as resources and not just liabilities for municipalities.

I think we're moving in a number of ways to help create greater certainty around how those projects may be developed: what incentives are out there, both regulatory and otherwise, and what other requirements could maybe be met in that space?

We have that regulatory purview and that space. How do we better articulate what the requirements are, but then point them towards the resources? There, the Division of Financial Assistance and their grant programs can often assist these projects.

Finally, in January, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act plans for high-risk water basins will be due. What’s the current status of these plans and the Water Board’s role in reviewing them?

We're very fortunate to have a really good working relationship with the Department of Water Resources, who's our sister agency in the co-regulation and co-management of the SMGA. Right now, the Department of Water Resources takes a first blush: they approve, they disapprove, and those that are disapproved get brought over to the Board where there's space for remediation.

Ultimately, I think this is important to the locals. The premise of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is local control, and we know that that the local level is a more durable location from which the management of water resources stems. The Board is here to ensure that we remain honest in that endeavor. We know that although the timelines for sustainability for these groundwater basins is 20 years, it's going to be a hard 20 years to get there.

At this point, the Department of Water Resources and the State Board are preparing for the work ahead, and many of these plans are already public and moving forward through their own public processes to become adopted by their agencies. We're ready and prepared for a very work intensive time ahead, certainly on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act front, but on all fronts. SGMA will drive so much of these discussions in our watersheds around how we get to sustainability and resiliency in these systems.


"Governor Newsom's water portfolio is an evolution of (a) collection of good things we needed to do. It isn't about re-envisioning [California Water Action Plan] as much as it is about further distilling it into actions that we can be taking as state agencies and actions that will continue to be taken by Californians and communities throughout the state." —Joaquin Esquivel