Increasing Access to California’s Water Industry with an Equity Lens

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(Photos courtesy of Joone Lopez/Moulton Niguel Water District)

California Forward is committed to advancing policy intersections that create a more inclusive and sustainable California where all people can prosper. To move this forward, we must reimagine a state where we address the racial and geographic inequities that have been exacerbated by a public health and economic crisis, and we must answer the call to dismantle structural racism. The Voices of Shared Prosperity series amplifies the stories of Californians who are committing their time and talent to solutions that embrace equity, environmental sustainability, and economic opportunity.

“Diversity is not a nicety — diversity is a necessity. If you can’t understand or relate to the world around you and the people that you serve, you are already irrelevant.”

This is the reflection of Joone Lopez, general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District (MNWD), as she considered what power structures need to do in order to secure a more sustainable and equitable future for the state.

Lopez’s journey in water management is rooted in her passion for community service. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was eight years old. She faced many challenges both inside and outside of the home and it was a very difficult transition for her, yet one that gave her the ability to deeply connect to her community through shared experiences.

She started her career as a journalist but her path changed after her parents lost everything in the 1992 L.A. Riots. Her father passed away shortly after and she took on the responsibility of the family finances, working as a grant administrator for the City of Pasadena and then joining the police force.

After seven years with the police department and numerous awards, she shifted her service work to helping to provide communities with a vital utility — water. She brings a valuable varied regional perspective to her leadership at MNWD. Among her other professional experiences, Lopez served as the general manager of the Calaveras County Water District in Northern California and the vice president of the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company. She encourages water professionals to work in different regions to develop an appreciation for the unique regional challenges facing the industry.

She highlights the urgency in developing data-based solutions and community-centered practices to support a sustainable, equitable, and integrated future for water utilities. Her recommendations include:

  • Developing strong feedback loops with organizations that prioritize diversity and inclusion. Lopez serves as an executive committee board member of the California/Hawaii NAACP. She underscores the importance of adopting a holistic view of water as a service and a source of community inclusion and investment. She insists “it’s not just about the make-up of the staff — it’s about the make-up of the leadership […] It’s not just about being open to diversity but about seeking it in an actionable way.” She encourages these discussions partnered with trackable research to measure effective changes in industry demographics.
  • Creating a statewide emergency response dialog and action plan. In the wake of the natural disasters and shared crisis in 2020, Lopez pointed to the need to construct solutions that include water, public safety agencies, and others. “We’ve seen crises in spades last year and we are not ready. So much of the water infrastructure is out of sight. This makes it difficult to see and address issues in the infrastructure. We need to organize and support funding to get aid to those who are most in need.” She explained that affluent communities have stronger infrastructures than poor communities but emphasizes the need to develop strategies to support smaller agencies when a crisis hits.
Over a quarter of a million Californians lack access to clean drinking water. Those tend to live in rural and disadvantaged areas of the state. Explore more water data with the California Dream Index.
  • Supporting a shared industry reputation and collaborative action. “The impact of water has no boundaries. We are all connected […] so while one system is doing well if others are failing this has monetary, regulatory, and legislative impacts on the entire industry,” Lopez shared. She highlights water as the backbone of every aspect of life from the environment to the economy. She expressed that vulnerabilities in the state’s water infrastructure create disparities and barriers for communities to have access to a foundational resource.
  • Supporting and developing the next generation of leaders. Lopez emphasized the importance of opening career pathways to facilitate meaningful change in the workforce. This includes creating partnerships with organizations that serve individuals who have been underserved to upskill this population and offer a path to gainful employment. Her efforts include work to systematically increase opportunities and entry points into the water industry. She is currently partnering with Santiago Canyon College to enhance its Water Utility Science curriculum. Upon completion of the program, students receive a certification that will license them for employment in the water industry.
  • Utilizing specified actions and quantifiable data to measure effectiveness. Lopez is a member of the California Data Collaborative and a staunch advocate for reliable data-based solutions and encourages new water professionals to use research as the foundation for recommendations. She highlights the importance of developing an appreciation and an understanding of the many dimensions of water and research to create a “truly integrated learning environment.”

Lopez approaches her leadership with a wealth of experiences and a moral imperative to support communities. “I’m the story of the possible. I have the ability and a responsibility to help people in their lives. We need everyone to do what is right to pass down [this core resource] to future generations.”

MNWD is a partnering sponsor of the 2021 California Economic Summit. Lopez is a member of the Summit’s Empowering Resilient and Productive Landscapes workgroup. She continues to invest her expertise and experience to increase access to resources and expand opportunities for all Californians.

The Voices of Shared Prosperity stories will be shared in advance of the 2021 California Economic Summit, taking place on November 9-10.


Amber Bolden

All stories by: Amber Bolden