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New Water Official’s Views on Salton Sea, Other Priorities

Lori Pottinger August 15, 2017
Salton Sea White Pelicans

California’s State Water Board has a broad mandate to oversee our complex water system and balance all beneficial uses of water. Joaquin Esquivel―the newest member of the board and a member of the PPIC Water Policy Center’s advisory council―brings broad experience working on state and federal water issues, and personal and professional experience with the challenges of the Salton Sea. We talked with him about his priorities for California’s water issues.

PPIC: You’ll be engaged with the board’s effort to reduce environmental and public health problems at the Salton Sea. Why is this issue important?

JOAQUIN ESQUIVEL: The health and viability of the sea is important in many ways. It’s important to the health of our families and communities throughout the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Many people who live there already struggle with poor environmental quality. It’s critical to the Pacific Flyway and the more than 400 bird species that use the sea. It’s key to the economies of surrounding communities, which could take an estimated $29–70 billion hit over the next few decades if the sea declines unchecked. And it’s important to California’s water future.

People sometimes forget how much water California gets from the Colorado River, which was significant to Southern California’s resiliency during the recent drought. There is a deep and abiding connection between the sea’s success and our success at better managing the Colorado River, which itself has been stressed by drought.

The issues facing the sea are not unlike other big challenges we face in many other watersheds in California: overlapping public health, economic, and ecosystem needs; limited resources; legacy challenges; and insufficient funding for the scope of work that needs to be undertaken.

Resolving the Salton Sea’s issues requires a tremendous amount of cooperation. The good news is that we’re at the right moment for decisive action. The California Natural Resources Agency has developed a common vision and plan with stakeholders on projects we need to undertake immediately and over the next 10 years.

PPIC: What are you most optimistic about regarding California’s water issues? And what are you most concerned about?

JE: I’m excited by the fact that the drought really focused Californians on water and brought forward communities, voices, and leaders with a passion to break through the old fights and work together to tackle the state’s most difficult water challenges. The drought has created incredible opportunities for collaboration. For example, we’re seeing collaborative efforts in the Central Valley to find solutions to the lack of safe drinking water in some of our poorest and most disadvantaged communities. There’s growing understanding of the importance of expanding and maintaining watershed health, along with growing partnerships between farmers—our greatest assets as stewards of our land—academia, and NGOs to rebuild and strengthen the resilience of our ecosystems. I’m excited that there’s a new generation of engagement on water policy, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

What keeps me up at night is the huge amount of work that needs to be done to resolve our greatest challenges and always feeling that we don’t have the dollars we need to undertake it all. Inadequate funding is always going to be a challenge, so we need to figure out how to better align local, state, and federal dollars, policies, and priorities. It’s really important that we solve the problem of underfunding our water systems and the ecosystems that underpin them.

PPIC: Talk about the governor’s new joint project with the governor of Maryland to develop a “water policy learning network” for other governors.

JE: The National Governors Association staff had been hearing from its members that states were interested in learning about managing water resources, and they approached Governor Brown and Governor Larry Hogan about co-chairing an initiative. I was fortunate to have been tapped as the advisory group co-chair, along with Maryland’s secretary of the environment. The first of two Water Policy Institutes was held earlier this week in Maryland. The second will be held next year in California. The initiative is an opportunity for states to share and discuss best practices in the management of water resources. While it will be useful to share the ways in which California has been a leader on conservation, recycling, and integrated water management, this is also an opportunity for us to learn from other states. We’re right to feel proud of the leadership California has shown on water, but we still have a long way to go in many respects. This initiative is the ideal opportunity to learn from the wealth of experience in other states.

Learn more

Read “Remaking the Salton Sea” (PPIC Blog, April 6, 2017)
Read California’s Water: The Colorado River (from the California’s Water briefing kit, October 2016)
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center

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