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The Changing Face of California’s Water Leadership

Lori Pottinger June 26, 2017
Surveying a generator unit at the California Department of Water Resources Devil Canyon Powerplant. The facility located in San Bernardino County generates electricity from water traveling through the plant from Silverwood Lake. The water is then discharged into two afterbays which water is distributed to contracting water users. Photo taken April 6, 2012. 

John Chacon / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

California’s water managers face many challenges—from a changing climate to a growing population. We spoke with Celeste Cantú, chair of the PPIC Water Policy Advisory Council. Cantú served for more than a decade as general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority and is stepping down this month. She talked about how the profession must change to better address these issues.

PPIC: What does it mean to be a “water leader” in California today?

Celeste Cantú: Currently, our water leaders primarily draw from an engineering skill set; their goal has been to manage discrete problems with precisely targeted solutions. That approach has proven to be too piecemeal for the water challenges we face today. Going forward, water leaders will need to be change agents. Water leaders will need to step out of their silos and see how their work fits into the larger context of the watershed, and think about upstream and downstream impacts. They’ll need “soft skills” such as conflict management in addition to technical expertise, because key to addressing 21st century water problems will be the ability to collaborate and develop solutions that benefit the larger system or watershed.

How we think about water is also changing. For most of the 20th century we managed water as if it were fuel you burned until it was gone. But water constantly circulates. Every drop delivered goes somewhere else when we’re done with it—usually, it’s treated and returned to a river, where someone downstream is likely to use that drop again. Historically, we water managers haven’t seen ourselves as interacting in that cycle―we see ourselves more in the context of our discipline or local agency. By thinking about the entire water cycle, we can manage the drop to get more beneficial uses from it. We get as many as 10 or 20 uses in the Santa Ana watershed before we release it to the ocean. It’s been said that a drop of water in the Santa Ana River is the hardest working drop in California! Collaborating across boundaries to get more uses from that water drop is the defining challenge of a successful 21st century water strategy.

PPIC: How have the state’s water challenges changed?

CC: I’ve seen an upward spiral of progress over the course of my career. Early on, we mostly were thinking about how to reduce pollution from particular sources. After getting that pretty much taken care of, we moved on to addressing more diffuse pollution that doesn’t come from one place. We’ve made progress but still have quite a ways to go. I’ve also seen an evolution toward integrated water management, an important strategy that addresses multiple water issues more efficiently and synergistically. It means the water supply agencies work with the stormwater agencies and water quality people to get more functionality out of that water drop. We’ve made progress on this as well. Finally, thanks to California’s leadership, we have a much better understanding how much water we use and how to conserve it.

PPIC: Will the next generation of water leaders face new water challenges?

CC: They absolutely will, due to climate change, but they also come much better prepared to address these challenges. They bring a greater understanding of the linked qualities that exist in nature and which define water resource management. They come better prepared for collaboration and not only solving problems but creating a new vision of resiliency. I am optimistic, and committed to sharing knowledge with the new leadership. After I retire this month I’ll be working with Water Education for Latino Leaders (WELL), which helps cultivate water leaders among elected officials working in Latino communities.

The incoming generation of water leaders is much more diverse. California needs water leaders who reflect our demographics, or they will lack standing or legitimacy. We’ll need to make some difficult choices and substantial investments in water in the future. Since we don’t have sufficient revenue streams, water managers will have to have trusting relationships with their ratepayers. People from the community are better able to develop those relationships.

Learn more

Explore the California’s Water briefing kit
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center’s water supply page

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