Sierra Club Looks to Build on Special Efforts to Make Water Agencies More Diverse and Progressive

  • Posted on 1 March 2021
  • By John Monsen

The Sierra Club Helped Make Several Influential Water Agencies More Diverse and Progressive; Now We Need to Prepare to Do Even More

Water may be life, but most residents of Southern California do not often reflect on the complex series of canals, pumps, and pipelines that connect where they live to water sources like the Colorado River, the Sierras, or the numerous water basins under LA County.
Even less appreciated is the role water districts play in combining water sources, treating our water, and distributing it. Major water districts influence water quality and rates. They decide how to meet future water needs in an era of drought and climate change. These agencies determine if your water comes from sustainable local sources like conservation and recycling or from desert-damaging water mining projects like Cadiz. 
These influential agencies have names like West Basin, Central Basin, the Upper District, Three Valleys, and the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency. Each typically serves hundreds of thousands of customers. If your water is not provided by the city you live in, it probably comes from a water district.  Many of these districts are member agencies of the Metropolitan Water District, a massive Southern California-wide water wholesaler.  
“I always have to explain what our water district does,” says Katie Garcia, whom the Sierra Club endorsed for the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District (Upper District) board seat she now holds. “We are a water wholesaler that brings together various water sources and treats the water to meet established standards. It is then sent to smaller local retail water districts that deliver the water to residences. You typically see their name on your bill.” The Upper District services San Gabriel, El Monte, Baldwin Park, Monrovia, and Covina. 
Jorge Marquez, Covina City Council member and Katie’s campaign manager, says that now is the time for prospective 2022 water district candidates to begin preparing to run.  Jorge has been in a leadership role in 14 political campaigns, including managing Katie Garcia’s successful 2020 run on a modest $12,000 budget.
In spring 2020 the Angeles Chapter Political Committee decided to put more emphasis on endorsing and supporting water district candidates, especially women and people of color who would help break up the old boy’s network that has historically dominated water boards. Some board members have served for two or three decades with little accountability to the public. The working nickname for the old guard: “water buffaloes.” The composition of water boards is even more important in under-resourced communities with large pools of COVID 19 unemployed. These communities are the most sensitive to water rates and the most likely to encounter water quality issues. 
In the November 2020 election the Sierra Club achieved a rare double win in the Three Valleys Municipal Water District, which serves the territory south from Glendora and Claremont to Pomona and Diamond Bar.  Going into the election, the Three Valleys Board was composed of five conservatives, one moderate, and one progressive. In 2020 they accepted $805,000 from Cadiz Inc. to fund a study of the environmental impacts of Cadiz Inc.'s desert water mining project with a Cadiz advocate at the study's helm. The Sierra Club has vehemently objected to the biased study designed to help prop up Cadiz flagging public image. 
Three Valleys Municipal Water District Claremont, CA

Offices of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Claremont. The agency supplies water to Claremont, Glendora, Diamond Bar and Pomona. The Sierra Club helped oust two conservative board members in November 2020 election and replace them with more environmentally-oriented board members.

Sierra Club endorsed candidates Danielle Soto and Mike Ti ousted two of the conservative board members, radically altering the board’s make-up to three progressives, three conservatives, and one moderate. Carlos Goytia is no longer the only environmental and social justice advocate on the board. The Sierra Club was one of the few organizations to endorse Mike and Danielle won by only 1.5% of the vote. It is possible that the Sierra Club endorsement, campaign contribution, and support made the difference. With the new board in place, Three Valleys may well consider abandoning the $805,000 Cadiz-funded study. 
Danielle SotoIf you talk with Katie Garcia, she will proudly mention that she is the first Latina-Asian Pacific Islander on the Upper District board. For her, it is important that we work to create a critical mass of environmental and social justice progressives on water boards. Katie believes that having a second woman on the five-member Upper District board makes a difference. The first woman, Jennifer Santana, was endorsed by the Sierra Club and elected in 2018. 

Newly elected Three Valleys water district board member Danielle Soto adds a progressive voice to this formerly conservative East Los Angeles County agency.

“I’m a woman, a young mother, a high school teacher and a Millennial,” Katie says.  “I come from a political family. My parents were union organizers. I think my perspective is important. With just one woman on the board, it was more intimidating.”  Her campaign manager, Jorge Marquez, was very appreciative of the Sierra Club endorsement of Katie, saying that it “proved most helpful in winning over undecided Democrats who associated the Sierra Club with the environment and clean water.”
The Sierra Club scored additional victories on November 3, 2020, with the re-election of Martha Camacho-Rodriguez to Central Basin and the election of Kathye Armitage to the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency board. These results were achieved through a team effort by members of the Political and Water Committees, the San Gabriel Valley and the Diamond Bar-Pomona Valley Task Forces, the Santa Clarita and the Central Groups, and several others. Sierra Club members helped raise money for campaigns, worked as volunteers, and provided strategic campaign guidance.
In terms of water boards, the Sierra Club’s 2020 election performance was only a down payment on the possible. We still have more young, diverse, progressive candidates to add to water boards. If you want to run for a board seat in 2022, Jorge Marquez recommends that you, “gather with family and friends to assess if you have the level of commitment it takes to run a winning political campaign, which means devoting every spare moment you have to the campaign in the final six-month run-up to the November 2022 election. Right now, you should increase civic activities and learn about the water issues facing the communities you would represent.” Jorge stresses that running for a water board seat, especially against an incumbent, means making a commitment to raising the necessary funding to hire a campaign manager or advisor, conduct targeted mailings, and purchase materials like flyers and lawn placards
Katie GarciaKatie Garcia had all of these elements working for her in her landslide victory. 

Katie Garcia, endorsed by the Sierra Club for her Upper District water board seat, stresses the importance of adding more women to water boards that have historically been dominated by conservative men.

Since most voters do not follow water district races on their own, it makes campaign statements that go to all voters in advance of an election all the more important. The same holds true for candidate designations, the two or three-word description of the candidate under their name on the election ballot. Katie Garcia is a high school science teacher whose ballot designation was, appropriately, “Environmental Science Educator.” Mike Ti was a “Water Resource Analyst.” Candidates need to be able to demonstrate that what they claim is true. Here are some losing water board candidate designations; “Strategic Business Analyst” and “Retired Plumber.”   

Kathye Armitage Kathye Armitage, now on the Santa Clarita Water Agency board, is a life-long environmentalist who has an MPH in Public Health from UCLA and a Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Natural Resources from Oregon State University. She completed a certificate in Water Systems Technology at College of the Canyons.

Her campaign could serve as a model for anyone who wants to run for a water board seat. For starters, she completed the six-month-long Democratic Party political candidate training program Emerge California. Kathye regularly attended SCWA board meetings prior to being elected and she was selected to serve on the Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s Stakeholder Advisor Committee, which educated her further about local water issues and enabled her to use “Groundwater Sustainability Advisor” as her ballot designation.
Partly through the contacts she made at Emerge California, Kathye raised over $20,000 for her campaign. She had a friend manage her campaign at no cost and she enlisted an experienced volunteer treasurer. Kathye’s “secret sauce,” as she calls it, was reaching out virtually to high school and community college students about water issues. This generated campaign volunteers for daily phone banking, another major campaign plus.
There is no better way to elect a new generation of water board members, Kathye says, than to reach out to the next generation of voters.

John Monsen is an environmental campaign consultant and long-time Angeles Chapter public lands and equity advocate. In recent year, he has been a leader in the effort stop the Cadiz water mining project, what sparked his interest in adding progressives to water boards.  John is Co-Chair of the Chapter’s Forest Committee and a member of the Sierra Club California and Angeles Chapter Water Committees and Political Committees.  He is a former chair of the SCC Conservation Committee.  In recent years he has been a consultant to the National Parks Conservation Association, the Wilderness Society, Nature for All, Pew Charitable Trust and the Sierra Club, among others. 


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As Co-Chair of the Angeles Chapter Political Committee, I want to thank John Monsen, from the PolCom side, and Charming Evelyn and others from the Water Committee, for working together so as to greatly expand our water districts endorsement activities in 2020. Looking ahead, we can do even more.

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