2023 cohort
Water and drought

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Communities of color lack flood control. Would representation on water boards help?

“It's a long history of disinvestment in communities of color.”

Bella Kim

September 23, 2023

Tower Bridge across the Sacramento River, where winter storms caused a noticeable water level rise. (Bella Kim)

About this story

This story was produced by a reporter in the 2023 cohort of the AAJA/Calmatters JCal program and originally published in Fresnoland.

During three weeks in December and January, storms dumped 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow on California. With it came unwelcome floods for many communities of color.

The winter and spring storms were a rare chance for drought-stricken communities to collect rainwater, rather than have their farms, homes and more overwhelmed by water. Much of the rain that fell instead overflowed in lakes and streams, leading to disaster in low-income Central Valley towns like Allensworth and Planada.

“It’s a long history of disinvestment in disadvantaged communities and communities of color, in drinking infrastructure, water systems and flood control,” said Michael Claiborne, an attorney for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an environmental justice organization based in the San Joaquin and East Coachella Valleys.

In the aftermath of the damage, community leaders are reiterating a call to diversify water boards to give marginalized groups more power.

The California State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the distribution of water in the state, has acknowledged that its workforce does not reflect California’s racial composition. Part of the State Water Board are nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards. These regional boards develop “basin plans” to manage water quality in their area, taking into account their region’s unique environmental factors. 

In 2020, 69% of water board management was white, while 31% were Black, Indigenous or other people of color. By comparison, 37% of California’s population is white and 63% are Black, Indigenous or other people of color, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.

“More local representation would ensure that when decisions are made, the needs of the communities impacted aren’t ignored,” Claiborne said.

The communities that flooded don’t have proper infrastructure such as levees and canals, experts said, which divert water to floodplains or groundwater basins that wells can draw from for later use.

Members of the State Water Board were not available to comment on representation by the time of publishing.

The State Water Board adopted a plan this January to improve racial equity and better represent California’s diversity. This resolution also applied to the regional boards, which used the resolution as a guide to develop their own racial equity plans. 

“A lot of these board seats go uncontested,” said Allison Harvey Turner, CEO of the Water Foundation. “The same people have been in these decision-making positions for decades.”
Inequality still remains a concern when it comes to California’s water infrastructure, the first defense against floods.

Allensworth, a small farming community of mostly Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley, was ordered evacuated because of flooding from this year’s storms. The town sits at the edge of the Tulare Lake basin, which was the source of much of the flooding. Drained and cultivated decades ago, Tulare Lake was revived by the storms in less than three weeks. But its resurrection submerged miles of valuable Allensworth farmland.

Other cities near Tulare Lake, including Corcoran and Alpaugh, also suffered devastating flood damage. What were once roads, homes and farmland ended up at the bottom of almost 170 square miles of water.

While many agencies manage water, Claiborne said those bodies are dominated by wealthier, “bigger water users.”

“Disadvantaged communities have very little ability to influence local decision-making,” Claiborne said.

The central coast town of Pajaro and Merced County’s Planada are two other low-income, farming communities of color destroyed by floods. In both towns, county officials were blamed for not properly maintaining the levees that failed.

“In places that have gotten a fair amount of tension like Pajaro, levees needed work, but the investments made to shore them up failed and communities flooded,” said Harvey Turner, of the Water Foundation.

Efforts are underway to improve representation on water boards, which would give small landowners and communities of color an avenue to advocate for better water infrastructure. The Water Foundation provides grants to support organizations such as the Leadership Counsel, which helps local advocates learn about their regional water boards and run for those positions.
One current Tulare County Supervisor, Eddie Valero, is an outcome of those programs.

“That can be super powerful – if we are able to shift the faces and communities that are reflected in these water positions,” Harvey Turner said.

Sidebar: Can districts store too much rainwater?

California needs to think about water storage in advance to prevent disasters such as this year’s flooding in the Central Valley, said Allison Harvey Turner, CEO of the Water Foundation.

The state uses reservoirs to store water during dry periods and catch rainwater. But, Harvey Turner said, those uses compete with each other – if reservoirs are already full when it rains, the fresh rainfall will inevitably flood communities. 

“From a flood perspective, you want to keep the reservoir empty, so you have more space to capture it and protect the downstream communities, lands or ecosystems,” she said.

To help address this, the Water Foundation supplies grants to help its partners build levees, expand floodplains and advocate for more green spaces that soak water into the ground. 

There were likely other missed opportunities to collect rainwater this year: As of Sept. 2, for example, Sacramento experienced about 26.18 inches of precipitation since the start of the water year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, according to Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. That’s 7.13 inches above its normal precipitation at this time.

Meanwhile, the San Joaquin Valley overall experienced about 15.40 inches of precipitation during that time, according to Andy Bollenbacher, a meteorologist with the weather service. That’s about 5.83 inches above normal.

About the author

Bella Kim is a 2023 JCal reporter from Los Angeles County.

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JCal is a free program that immerses California high school students into the state’s news ecosystem. It is a collaboration between the Asian American Journalists Association and CalMatters.