30 SOURCE spring 2021
E. Joaquin Esquivel was raised in the Coachella
Valley, California, and is the former assistant
secretary for federal water policy at the California
Natural Resources Agency.
A SOURCE Interview with E. Joaquin Esquivel
CHAIR, STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD
Reconciling California’s Water
Past with Inclusive Future By Lynn Lipinski
Since joining the State Water Resources Control Board in 2017, E. Joaquin Esquivel has brought an inclusive, fresh and
digital-savvy outlook to the regulatory board that can trace its roots back nearly 175 years in California history. Recently
reappointed for a second term, he has earned a reputation as an approachable and authentic servant leader who prioritizes
collaboration with dignity for all. Here, Esquivel talks about the Board's priorities, California’s legacy of water development
and his outlook for the next two years.
SOURCE: The State Water Resources Control Board was created
in the 1960s and was given the authority and responsibility to
protect water quality, balance competing demands on our water
resources and attempt to resolve decades-long water disputes. But
in some ways, the Board traces its roots back to the state's water
battles beginning during the 1849 Gold Rush. How has that legacy
of balancing competing demands on California's water resources
evolved and what do you see as the Board's mission today?
ESQUIVEL: We certainly know a lot more today about our
watersheds, their ecologies and the economies we have built upon
them than we did during the reckless abandon of the Gold Rush.
The challenge before us is how to turn that knowledge and hindsight
into better decisions for today and future generations.
When it comes to the roots of our enduring water battles,
although the Gold Rush was a turning point, I would go back in
time even further to the thousands of years — time immemorial
— that roughly 300,000 Native People lived and thrived in what we
now know as the state of California.
It’s a point of particular pride that Governor Gavin Newsom
made it a priority, early in his term, to issue an apology through a
state executive order to California Native American Peoples for the
many instances of violence, mistreatment and neglect that the state
had inflicted throughout history. While this start is long overdue, it
is hard to fully appreciate what it means to reconcile that past, that
history, with other fundamental mistakes on our path to the present.
Recently, the word I find myself reflecting on most often is
‘reconciliation.’ We have collectively inherited an incredible legacy
of water systems and resources, which have allowed California
to become one of the world's wealthiest economies while
supporting nearly 40 million residents. Yet, we are still making
amends with our collective past, including having spent the last
century building water projects and economies for a climate and
hydrology that no longer exists.
If we have any hope of moving onto the challenges before us
without perpetuating, or worse, repeating past injustices, we must
reconcile our inherited water systems. This theme of reconciliation
and its accompanying themes of penance and absolution pervade
the more legal and regulatory language of the programs and tools at
the State Water Board. What makes the task even more challenging
is the defensiveness that arises in reconciling systems that most of
us had no hand in creating directly, yet find ourselves responsible
While the Water Board's core mission that then-Governor
Ronald Reagan signed into law has not changed, our norms,
expectations and scientific and technical understanding of water
management have certainly evolved in the half-century since the
State Water Board's formation. Incorporating those evolutions,
untangling and setting on the right course 19th century water law
and aging 20th century infrastructure to respond to a 21st century
climate crisis, at its simplest, is our collective task.
SOURCE: Is there one accomplishment or moment so far that
stands out in the roughly two years that you’ve been chair?
ESQUIVEL: As I look toward serving a second term, I am glad
to say there have been a number of moments that stand out. If I
were to land on a single one, it would be Governor Newsom's