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State Board Racial Equity Workshop July 29, 2022

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By Don A. Wright

The State Water Resources Control Board had staff conduct a workshop to garner public input on the Board’s racial equity plan. The two and half hour workshop was held in Visalia at the Self Help Enterprises’ headquarters at 4pm on Wednesday, July 27th. The same day as the drop-dead deadline for many of the San Joaquin Valley’s Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to submit their revised Groundwater Sustainability Plans to the state’s Department of Water Resources.

The State Board

The Board is made up of five members all appointed by the governor. In the hierarchy of state government the Board serves under the California Environmental Protection Agency headed by Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. One appointee each must be:

  • An attorney admitted to the state bar with water experience
  • A registered civil engineer qualified in water supply and water rights
  • A registered professional engineer with experience in sanitation and water quality
  • One member qualified in the field of water quality.
  • One of the above appointed persons shall also be qualified in the field of water supply and quality relating to irrigated agriculture.
  • And if I’m reading the law correctly, one member is not required to have specialized experience.

The State Board Chairman is Joaquin Esquivel. Appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2017 to replace then Chair Felicia Marcus, my guess is Esquivel is the member without specialized experience since his bio lists a BA in English from UC Santa Barbara. That’s not to say he doesn’t have plenty of experience. He worked in Washington DC on federal water policy as an Assistant Secretary for the California Natural Resources Agency. He also worked as an aide to Senator Barbara Boxer, so he’s well versed in the mechanics of government.

Dorene D’Adamo, Vice Chair has been on the board since 2013 and is the member with agricultural irrigation experience. She also has a long background in governmental positions. She was on the Air Resources Board during the Brown, Schwarzenegger and Davis Administrations and worked for 20-years for various members of Congress. She has BA from UC Davis and a law degree from McGeorge.

Appointed in 2018 Sean Maguire is a Civil Engineer. Three years prior to becoming a board member Maguire worked for the State Board. Before that he worked as an engineering consultant specializing in municipal water agencies. He earned his BS from Cal State Sacramento.

Laurel Firestone joined the board in 2019. She has walked an impressive academic path, graduating magna cum laude from Brown University and with honors from Harvard Law School. She also made time to found  and co-direct the Community Water Center in Visalia. She might be the water quality member or of course the attorney member.

And Nichole Morgan is also a civil engineer with a BS from Cal State Sacramento (what happened to the professional engineer? Maybe Ms. Morgan or Mr. Maguire have a PE as well.) Morgan has worked for either the State Board or the Central Valley Regional Board since 2009. She was appointed to the board in 2021.

These then are the five non-elected board members tasked with fulfilling the mission statement, “To preserve, enhance, and restore the quality of California’s water resources and drinking water for the protection of the environment, public health, and all beneficial uses, and to ensure proper water resource allocation and efficient use, for the benefit of present and future generations.” The State Board is the agency that deals with water rights and has the power to curtail diversions. One hopes they would be sober, judicious and as unbiased as humanly possible.

Racial Resolution

In November of 2021 the State Board adopted Resolution No. 2021-0050, “Condemning Racism, Xenophobia, Bigotry, and Racial Injustice and Strengthening Commitment to Racial Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Access, and Anti-Racism” a resolution to incorporate racial equity in its decision making and hiring practices.

Page five of the resolution, Whereas number 22 – “. . . the national and worldwide backlash against racism toward Black people and related Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 accelerated and informed the Water Board’s decision to develop and initiate, resolution and subsequent action plans to address racial inequities within the Water Boards and through the Water Boards’ work.”

The resolution was peppered with statements such as, “Historically, the Water Boards’ programs were established over a structural framework that perpetuated inequities based on race.”

And, “White supremacy is a systemically and institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of nations and people of color by white people for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.”

The resolution calls for an Office of Racial Equity within the State Board organization and a  Racial Equity Action Plan to be developed. Haven’t heard much about the establishment of a Racial Equity Office but there were four workshops held during July for the public to share its ideas and suggestions.

The State Board is serious about this. There was even a quote on the State Board website by Executive Director Eileen Sobeck from August of 2020, “There could not be a more critical challenge facing us at this time than the challenge of achieving racial equity.” Evidently this quote has been (wisely I believe, perhaps in light of the drought) taken down. (False alarm – it can be found at )

During a July 2021 hearing on the resolution the public gave input. You can watch:  but be prepared, it’s three hours long. Some of the comments were – well, you be the judge.

Itzell Vasquez-Rodriguez works at the State Board’s Office of Public Participation wants promotions and opportunities at the State Board based on equity and wants nontraditional job classifications.

“Promotional opportunities mainly exist for staff with backgrounds in engineering, the hard sciences, geology, etc.,” said Vasquez-Rodriguez. “These skills are often very white.”

On a similar note Ilze Flores Castillo Wang wants the State Board to strike the word chief from any titles such as department chief as it is offensive to indigenous people. She also wants the State Board to “. . . acknowledge indigenous knowledge as equal to engineers and doctors.”

Kaitlyn Kalua, California Coast Keepers Alliance said the current water rights are illegitimate therefore instream flows must be increased and senior water rights voided.

Natalie Garcia, Leadership Council for Justice & Accountability stated the Central Valley Project contracts harm the BIPOC community.

By the way BIPOC is shorthand for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Some people use it as the buzzword to establish the delineation of ancestry based on skin tone and assigning them into either oppressor or oppressed.

Besides the fact we’re all indigenous and all people of color but for the unfortunate, occasional albino, this is the very definition of racism – judging people by the hue of their skin instead of the content of their character.

The idea of Racial Equity comes from Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory comes from critical theory as espoused by Marxist university professors fleeing Nazi Germany prior to World War II. They fled Germany and wound up at Columbia University in New York City.

The Workshop

With all of this as background I stepped into the State Board’s workshop in Visalia with some trepidation. After all I am a man, predominantly of European extract and believe Critical Race Theory is part of an evil, communist plan to enslave humans by removing the freedom afforded by worshiping a God greater than ourselves. What could go wrong?

Actually nothing went wrong. The State Board staff were very considerate, friendly and even fun. There was a live, video presentation by Board member Firestone. She kept to the point and I don’t want to sound mean here, but she often spends a lot of time giggling when I’ve seen her in the past. Don’t get me wrong, it can be endearing in certain circumstances. And, the bare bone fact is I would prefer her giggling to many of the utterances made by some public officials. However, it would have been a better meeting if Firestone had stayed with us and answered questions.

But the heavy load was carried by the ladies in the room working for the State Board, all of whom I believe were Hispanic. Normally that wouldn’t merit mention but since the topic of the  meeting was race, well there we go. After the summer of Black Lives Matter and the Brown Shirt tactics of Antifa we’re raw on the subject. People are scared to be labeled racist for mentioning race. Unless you are a racist, don’t be scared.

I have been called a racist and a xenophobe. I didn’t like it but since I’m neither of those things I realize those who made the claims are bigots and ignorant of my life and who I am. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” still holds true for my generation. God Himself says He judges the heart, not the exterior and warns us to do the same.

In a May 17, 2021 essay in National Review by Christopher Caldwell on Critical Race Theory, he mentions a cartoon that has been used extensively by racial equity proponents. Caldwell writes cartoonist Craig Froehle created a drawing in 2012 labeled, “Equality to a conservative, equality to a liberal.” In the cartoon are three people watching a ball game over the outfield fence. One is tall, one medium and one short. Fortunately they all brought wooden crates to stand on. So the tall and medium guys can see over the fence but the short guy can’t, even with his crate. The idea is this is how equality works – all are equal. In the next panel the tall guy is standing on the ground and can still see over the fence. The medium guy is still standing on his crate and can still see over the fence. However, the short guy now has two crates and can also see over the fence – this is supposed to represent equity – the same outcome for all.

As Caldwell wrote, “Froehle’s drawing may be a satisfying lesson about why children should share, but as a depiction of how adults reach political compromise it is misleading.” Very misleading. No mention why the three couldn’t purchase tickets and attend the game in the stands. Right from the start the concept places the three characters outside of the mainstream of participation. There wouldn’t be a baseball game to watch if everyone was standing outside the fence.

The possessions the political activists want to swap aren’t crates. They are the goods that lead to a better future; home ownership, your children’s education and the reward for working a job. In the case of the State Board’s efforts considering the magnitude of water’s importance to all living things, that’s a major responsibility to determine whose possessions should be swapped. Rights, including water rights are just that, rights. They are not privileges or favors granted by the government. And while the people of the United States are not perfect, and neither is our state or federal governments, the goal is to form a more perfect union. It takes hubris to think the institutions can’t be improved but rather torn down and replaced with the current trends from the academic lounge.

Speaking Freely

As stated above the State Board staff in Visalia were great. They encouraged us all to speak freely, no heated debates broke out causing distraction. Jenelyn Guzman moderated the workshop and I even got to see Adriana Renteria. She used to work at the Community Water Center in Visalia before moving to Sacramento to work for the State Board. I’ve missed her. She was the number one go to for me when it came to the CWC.

The workshop included two “community storytellers” a term I wasn’t familiar with. A lady from Fairmead spoke about how that Madera County community has suffered from domestic wells going dry. She attributed the problem to a great deal of pumping in the adjoining white area lands. What was range or annual cropland has been planted in orchards and deep wells drilled near the community. The other storyteller was Michael Prado Sr. of Sultana. Prado is very active on the Kings River East GSA. Well, they told their stories about their communities.

The real meat of the event came when the attendees’ got the opportunity to give comments and suggestions on just how racial equity should be handled by the State Board. Attendees received a 10-page document titled “Taking Action to Advance Racial Equity at the State Water Board.” The document stated, “We will use the feedback gathered through public workshops and tribal consultation processes to inform the development of a Racial Equity Action Plan that will be released for formal public comment in September, 2022. It also stated it was structured to give:

  • Strategic Directions – How we will approach our work
  • Goals – Results we aim to achieve
  • Challenges – Existing barriers that need to be addressed
  • Draft Actions – Potential actions to take that are intended to achieve our goals and overcome challenges.

Staff plans to bring the results to the board in December. Page two of the document has one sentence, “State Water Board members will not approve or deny the Racial Equity Action Plan. However, staff will update the Board on its implementation periodically.” This raised questions in my mind – who will be accountable for the decisions made and responsible for the impacts of the Action Plan?

Around the room there were I believe, seven large two by three feet charts stuck to the wall. Printed on them were four strategic directions. At the top of the chart was the direction – Strategic Direction #1 Integrating Racial Equity, Measuring Impact. Below this heading was a description of the goal, in this case the Water Board needs better data. Then there was a section on actions to gather information and build skills with several bullet points. Then a section on actions to monitor and evaluate with its bullet points and a space for actions to implement. The other strategic directions were: #2 Creating, Maintaining Spaces for Inclusion & Belonging. Strategic Direction #3 Activating BIPOC Community Wisdom and last Strategic Direction #4 Sharing Power & Knowledge with Communities. Each of us were given sticky notes to write comments and attach to the appropriate chart. We then went back with the colored stickers provided to us so we could attach them to the sticky notes we agreed with.


We were asked to brainstorm ideas and write them down. There was a lot of staff from both the State and Regional Boards to answer questions. I’m guessing a third or more of the folks there were state employees or worked at Self Help Enterprises. People were not shy about giving their opinion in both English and Spanish. I was surprised at some of the suggestions and even more surprised at the popularity ranking of the suggestions. In fact I was so surprised I asked if all the comments will be listed, even if they don’t make their way to the Action Plan. I was told they will be available for the public to review.

The comments I read were nothing like the comments during the hearings on the resolution. If the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Everything’s a Big Dang Problem was expecting to see wild eyed denouncements of white supremacy in relation to water coming from of the San Joaquin Valley, they’re going to be disappointed.

There were denouncements but they overwhelmingly had more to do with the actual lack of surface water than any political theories on race. I’m paraphrasing the comments, which were anonymous, but we can fact check how close I get when the draft report on the workshops comes out in September.

One of the comments that garnered the most approval stickers had nothing to do with academic theory, historical oppression or even water supply or quality. The comment was a basic customer service issue for the State Board and really all of California’s government offices in Sacramento to get back to work, answer the phones and quit hiding behind Covid as an excuse for inaction.

Another surprising comment was that we’re all BIPOC, get over it. Everyone who drinks and uses water needs a clean reliable supply. In fact one person told me water at white people’s homes isn’t magically better than their neighbors of different ethnicity.

There were other comments about the lack of any specific mention of the disadvantaged communities and the farmworkers of the San Joaquin Valley. They were saying the decrease of available surface water supply is what’s harming the disadvantaged communities socially and economically far more than any systemic racism. Someone even suggested something very much like the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint as a way to improve the situation for the Valley’s communities. Bring in more water during wet years and recharge it. It is pretty simple.

There was one suggestion that since this racial inequity has been taking place under the State Board’s watch perhaps the State Board should be an elected board accountable to the voter. Ok, full disclosure, I wrote that. But it got a lot of colored sticker support. And what if instead of an appointed board each of the Regional Boards existing boundaries served as districts for an elected State Board? There’d be a great deal more diversity and local representation. Who wouldn’t want that? He asked rhetorically.

By the end of the workshop there was a sense of release, the kind you feel when someone listens to you. I was the last member of the public to leave, that wasn’t on purpose it just worked out. Someone asked me to take a group photo of the staff. I was happy to do so and felt like I’d made some friends, I certainly hope so. I must confess I felt so comfortable I let my guard down. I told the ladies I was embarrassed to tell them how to pose for a picture since they were all obviously professional swimsuit models, “. . . but would you please get closer so I can get you all in the frame?” Then I thought, did I offend anyone by implying they were swimsuit models even jokingly? If I did offend they were all too polite and classy to say so. In any event they all laughed and smiled and scooted closer. We got a decent photo and I left feeling way better than when I went in. I’ve been to a lot of water meetings over the years and I don’t recall ever before gathering for a laughing, smiling photo at the end.

A Good Example

There are several men and women willing to take on the responsibility of managing water in this Valley. Too many to list here. But they all have one thing in common – you can’t under perform and keep your job in water management. Doesn’t work that way, you have to be smart, aggressive and willing to devote yourself to the job. One of these brave souls was at the workshop. I consider Rogelio Caudillo kind of a bad @55. He’s the General Manager of the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency and that is no easy job for the weak. That also makes him a government employee who has to deal with the consequences of State Board decisions. Caudillo agreed to share some of his thoughts about the workshop.

Q: What was your impression of yesterday’s State Water Board’s Racial Equity Workshop?

A: It was a good presentation from the staff and very informative of their mission. I appreciated their inclusion of locals to tell their stories but it could have used more speakers or opportunities to demonstrate how diverse and complicated the issues and needs are in the region. Additionally, while I understand and can appreciate the goal of addressing racial inequity, I also felt that there was a huge, missed opportunity to discuss major issues that also require solutions such as poverty/unemployment, lack of resources, barriers to economic development, and the costs and inability to fund projects to improve conditions.

Q: Why did you feel this workshop was important enough to attend?

A: It was important because the Central Valley’s issues are often misunderstood and there is often a real disconnect with the state’s leadership. I hope the input of locals like myself at the workshop who grew up and still live in a disadvantaged, farmworker community, who is also involved in water policy could help bridge the gap between the State Water Boards and our communities here in the Central Valley.

Q: Do you feel this is an appropriate use of state (taxpayer) resources during a drought and will help the San Joaquin Valley?

A: It is if it can produce tangible solutions and results. Folks of all backgrounds out here are struggling, and any little bit of help can go a long way when done right. (A very reasoned answer to a bit of a loaded question.)

Walk Away

Someone shared with me that when their family first came to the Valley from Mexico the towns were nice. Yards and homes well kept. The kids didn’t fall prey to gangs and drugs. You could work hard and buy a home. It was much easier to start and grow a business. This person told me if the people of the Valley stand together she believes we can make things better for everyone.

This wasn’t someone like me talking. She wasn’t the same ethnicity; her mother tongue was different from mine and our religious views came from different denominations, yet she was willing to stand with me. Connections with our neighbors based on content of character and not skin color; there is a lot of that in this Valley. I left that State Board workshop feeling proud of the people of the San Joaquin and with some hope.

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