About Racial Equity at the Water Boards
“There could not be a more critical challenge facing us at this time than the challenge of achieving racial equity. This moment requires us to respond and implement recommended changes to ensure Water Boards policies and programs are equitable and just.”
—Eileen Sobeck, State Water Board Executive Director, August 2020
The California State Water Resources Control Board and nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards, collectively known as the Water Boards, are committed to ensuring that every Californian enjoys equitable protection from environmental harm. Through public and employee engagement, the Water Boards are working toward better understanding the needs of the communities we serve, providing equitable access to resource and services, confronting barriers to progress, and incorporating diverse perspectives into programs and policies to ensure that our work equitably benefits every Californian, regardless of race.
On August 18, 2020, staff presented an informational item to the Board on the Framework for Addressing Racial Equity. The Board acknowledged the historic effects of institutional racism that must be confronted throughout government, and it directed staff to develop a priority plan of action.
In fall 2020, Executive Director Eileen Sobeck established a Racial Equity Team, which comprises a diverse group of employees who represent various job classifications and areas of expertise throughout the State and Regional Boards. The Racial Equity Team has been tasked with three major priorities, which are summarized below.
Racial Equity Priority #1: Establish a foundation of internal and external engagement that values listening and collaboration to drive action.
To advance the Water Boards’ first goal, in late 2020, the Racial Equity Team facilitated four public listening sessions to hear from the communities we serve. Over a four-day period, 86 members of the public, including high school and college students, agricultural workers, and community activists, discussed five topic areas: 1) water in your community, 2) public participation and decision-making, 3) improving accessibility and data sharing, 4) funding, and 5) workforce and capacity building.
Collectively, public participants provided comments, perspectives, and recommendations reflecting the concerns of urban and rural water users and water users in disadvantaged and low-income communities, including majority-Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities throughout California. The following themes emerged during the public listening sessions:
- Public Fear and Building Trust in Government
- Big Government vs. Grassroots Engagement
- Economics of Tap Water vs. Bottled Water
- Balancing Technical and Plain Language
- Access to Telecommunications Technology
- Water Boards Presence and Messaging
In March 2021, the Racial Equity Team also organized nine sessions to listen to State and Regional Water Boards employees. The 379 employees who participated shared pros and cons about their Water Boards racial equity experiences.
Racial Equity Priority #2: Draft a resolution on racial equity to be considered for adoption by the State Water Board and leveraged by the nine Regional Water Boards to adopt their own resolutions.
Input from the public and employees continues to be invaluable. Informed by feedback gathered during the listening sessions, as well as data, historical facts, and prior racial equity efforts, the Racial Equity Team drafted a resolution that was adopted by the State Water Board on November 16, 2021. The resolution condemns racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and racial injustice, and it expresses our commitment to strengthening racial equity, diversity, inclusion, access, and anti-racism. In addition, it acknowledges:
- The existence of systemic racism and white supremacy across American institutions
- American history and the colonization, slavery, displacement, and genocide of Black, Indigenous and People of Color as contributors to racist precedents
- Race as a predictor of access
- Disproportionate distribution of adverse environmental impacts based on race
- Disproportionate allocations of funding and services based on race
- Remaining silent perpetuates racial inequities and systems of oppression
The resolution directs executive staff to develop a framework for analyzing how decisions and staff recommendations to the board may impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities and to develop and implement a Racial Equity Action Plan that articulates a racial equity vision and outlines specific actions to address Water Boards systems that perpetuate racial inequities while establishing new, resilient systems. Although it is a State Water Board resolution, the nine Regional Boards have strongly supported our racial equity efforts and are leveraging the State Water Board resolution and action planning to inform their own racial equity work. In fact, many of them have been leaders in advancing racial equity within their own boards.
Racial Equity Priority #3: Develop racial equity strategies and action plans to drive our efforts for the coming years.
Water Boards staff and stakeholders have launched into the beginning stages of developing our racial equity action plan, in collaboration with BIPOC communities, stakeholders, and the communities most impacted by racial inequities.
On May 3, 2022, we kicked off this effort with a Visioning Retreat where employees and stakeholders came together to imagine how a Water Boards that has fully integrated racial equity into its work will look, feel, think, and act.
The Visioning Retreat laid the foundation for a subsequent Strategizing Retreat. During the Strategizing Retreat, employees and stakeholders developed the State Water Board’s racial equity strategic directions. Based on these strategic directions, the week of May 16, 2022, staff from all State Board division and offices identified potential actions the State Water Board could take to address racial inequities and metrics the board will use to measure progress. These actions will help shape a draft action plan.
We expect staff to bring the Racial Equity Action Plan to the State Water Board as an informational item in late 2022 or early 2023. State Water Board members will not approve or deny the Racial Equity Action Plan. However, staff will update the board on its implementation periodically.