Panel discussion takeaways on the intersection of environmental justice, groundwater management and how to better include diverse stakeholders in natural resource issues.

On March 24, 2021, the Groundwater Resources Association of California and California Groundwater Coalition hosted the virtual 2021 Groundwater Law & Legislation Forum, featuring a keynote address from California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and updates on pending groundwater legislation, DWR’s SGMA implementation, and ACWA’s position on potential bond measures.

One panel focused on the intersection of environmental justice, groundwater management and the role the legislative process can play in bridging the gap between the intent behind strategies designed to bring more diverse voices (especially the voices of entities and individuals more likely to bear a disproportionate burden) to the table and the ultimate outcomes. Given the broad applicability of the takeaways to the intersection of resource management and social and environmental justice highlighted, we wanted to share the conversation and ideas for proactive actions to effectively include more diverse voices in high-stakes natural resource issues and decision-making beyond solely groundwater management.

The panel included Anecita Agustinez, the tribal policy advisor for the California Department of Water Resources; Dr. Kris May, principal at Silvestrum Climate Associates whose research includes understanding how sea level rise will impact/mobilize legacy contaminants in the soil of the shallow groundwater layer; Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, a small farms advisor for the UC Cooperative Extension who works primarily with immigrant, refugee and other farmers with limited resources; and Laurel Firestone, a State Water Resources Control Board member whose career has focused on building increased diversity, equity and inclusion into water decision-making.

Three barriers that preclude communities from fully participating in groundwater management continued to arise: language, data gaps and a poor understanding of the stakeholders. A lack of representation is one of the reasons why communities are also the ones most impacted by groundwater concerns, including contamination, wells running dry and access to clean drinking water.

Language

While developing communication and outreach materials in different languages, such as Spanish or Hmong, is important, the panelists made it clear that this alone is not enough. Language can become a barrier if materials are translated but much of the content is highly technical and unclear to someone without a nuanced scientific or policy background. Outreach and communication materials that are translated should be accompanied with the appropriate resources, tools and background/contextual information necessary for communities to fully understand, engage and take action on the information presented.

Panelists also emphasized the importance of the language used to define and talk about communities at the forefront of environmental justice issues. It may be easy or convenient for individuals on the outside to describe these communities as disadvantaged, vulnerable and/or low-income but these terms fail to fully capture the knowledge base and expertise of a community and its members that can and should be utilized.

Anecita also pointed out that the language in a piece of legislation has important implications for how it becomes implemented and often what is not written into a piece of legislation can be more consequential than what is included. In the context of SGMA, for example, the use of the term “voluntary” used to define tribal government’s role/participation in SGMA creates confusion and in effect translates to tribal governments not being eligible for funding, nor can they establish themselves as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). This impacts a tribe’s ability to fully participate in the SGMA process.

Data Gaps

Many of the communities that are on the frontlines of pressing groundwater concerns, whether that be water supply for drinking and irrigation uses or potential contamination issues, are smaller communities. Often baseline data about these communities and the resources they rely on is lacking. This means that potential risks facing these communities can more easily go unanalyzed or unrecognized. For example, there is a lack of data about the location and/or depth of many wells that small-scale farmers rely upon; therefore, when a map of at-risk wells is created, they go unnoticed. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so these gaps can easily result in the resources that these communities rely on not being sufficiently integrated into management decisions.

As Ruth eloquently put it during the discussion, “when using a macroeconomic lens, many of the small-scale stories and impacts get lost, and it typically hurts the communities that are most vulnerable to these impacts.” Not all outcomes and impacts are easily comparable nor quantifiable. A proportionally equivalent impact of say net water allocation or reduction for two stakeholders could very likely have drastically different implications for those entities. While a larger entity may be able to absorb a change with efficiencies and scale, a smaller entity may have no further wiggle room or funding to make the required adjustments.

Stakeholder Identification

Often important stakeholders are overlooked and not appropriately included during the management discussion. Proper stakeholder identification is vital to making sure everyone and every community has a seat at the table. This goes beyond identifying the official entities and agencies that operate in a given area. The panelists encouraged widening the lens to include, for example, tribes whose ancestral homeland covers a particular area and grassroots community groups or individuals who have been operating on the ground for years and have the trust of community members. A more precise stakeholder identification process will also shed light on community resources and knowledge that should be utilized during the management process. An example provided by Ruth was of a Hmong-speaking assistant who works closely with the Hmong farming community. He has worked with the community for decades earning their trust so should be identified as a stakeholder and valuable asset to engage necessary community members.

Proper stakeholder engagement may also lead to including more direct community members in the implementation of management projects rather than immediately hiring outside consultants. Having a community’s value reflected in a project’s budget is a concrete way to accomplish this goal. Pay the community to help solve the problems directly impacting them.

What Next?

The panelists made it clear that our current system isn’t built to successfully incorporate and engage with these frontline communities. If we want to make real strides in changing, we have to think about how to alter the system to more holistically include these communities. We cannot simply graft communities into structures that already exist, but rather create new ones that fully incorporate their community and the way they operate, communicate, share information and make decisions. Our responsibility, the responsibility of the people who are already at the decision-making table, is to proactively learn about the communities where our clients operate or our projects are located. Take the time to meet with farmers, community members and tribal organizations to learn not only about the resources and infrastructure they rely on, but also the knowledge and skills they possess. Oftentimes this can lead to the identification of win-win solutions that are missed when we take a 30,000-foot view of a problem. As Anecita put it: “start at the base and work upwards.” Much like trickle-down economics, environmental justice efforts and ideas that come from the top are not as likely to be effective.