Area Gets a Voice on California Water Commission

With the worsening drought much on the minds of Californians, Visalia has added another voice in the state’s approach to water regulation with the appointment of Maria Herrera, 32, to the California Water Commission (CWC).

“I’m very excited,” Herrera said of the announcement by Gov. Jerry Brown’s office late last month. “I’m honored to be chosen, and I know it’s a big commitment.”

She joins two other Valley residents already on the nine-person commission–Dave Orth of the Kings River Conservation District, and west-side farmer Joe Del Bosque.

Herrera underwent a series of interviews, gathered letters of support and was subjected to a background check before being selected to fill the vacancy. Her appointment still requires approval by the State Senate, yet she has already attended her first meeting of the agency tasked with approving water regulations and rules, advising the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and creating a forum for public input.

“I’m getting up to speed,” Herrera said.

Overseeing Water Bond Spending

The CWC is also overseeing spending some $2.7 billion set aside for water storage project development through the Water Storage Investment Project. The funding is part of the Prop 1 Water Bond passed by voters in November of last year.

“Our job is to work with the DWR and the public to develop the program,” Herrera said. “We’re working on getting together studies for water proponents.”

Herrera said the CWC process will be both “transparent” and “stakeholder-driven” as it decides which of the various storage proposals will receive funding. Among the stakeholders she hopes to see represented are the general public, as well as groups with vested interest in the future of water here, such as the California Farm Bureau, the Western Growers Association, various tribal groups and organizations that represent Hispanic water users.

“We’re going to spend the next few months getting the guidelines at least formed by October,” Herrera said, who added that the final documents should be completed by year’s end.

The group will also be overseeing implementation of the recently enacted Groundwater Management Act, which requires water agencies to develop sustainability plans and regulate groundwater usage.

Lifelong Water Passion

For Herrera, a wife and mother of four, joining the commission is a means of addressing the water-scarcity issues she has faced since coming to the Central Valley at age 3, and settling in Orange Cove, an area infamous for its water scarcity and pollution problems.

“I remember as a kid hearing about the water issues and the nitrate contamination,” she said. “I grew up with my parents worrying about water availability and quality.”

Herrera’s career in agriculture, driven by her passion for water, began in 2004 with a job as an ag-aid inspector for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, which she held until 2007. She became community advocacy director for the nonprofit Community Water Center in 2008, and currently she works as community development specialist for Self-Help Enterprises, a job that puts her knowledge of a complex issue to work in the field.

“Our job is to access funds for their communities,” she said of her work with Self-Help. “I focus a lot on technical issues, so they can access funding, and administering the programs.”

She is also active with grassroots organizations like El Quinto Sol de America and la Association de Gente Unida por la Agua that are working specifically in ensuring all Valley towns have access to plentiful, safe drinking water through lobbying and advocacy.

“We make sure our communities have information on local and statewide issues, and have a voice,” Herrera said.

It’s this life-long list of experiences that she says makes her uniquely qualified for a seat on the CWC.

“That’s really where I built my knowledge, working on the ground and living the issues,” Herrera said. “I saw the Water Commission as an opportunity to expand my knowledge and share my voice on the statewide commission.”

Breaking the Water Cycle

There’s also the issue of her family, which Herrera says is the center of her life and drives her passion for clean, safe water.

“My favorite thing is being with my family and cooking for them,” she said. “I started this work because of my kids. When I had my family and noticed the pattern: It wasn’t my parents telling me not to drink the water; it was me.

“I didn’t want them to be told not to drink the water or go to the park,” she said, recalling similar warnings from days spent in the Culter-Orosi area as youth. Water drawn there from local wells was often undrinkable because of pollutants. “A lot of my family still lives in those areas.”

Despite her passion and her desire to protect her family, Herrera was still hesitant about applying for a seat on the CWC.

“I always tell my kids to be part of the decision-making process,” she said. “I thought joining the CWC is a huge responsibility. Do I have what it takes to be on the commission? I had to take a step back and ask why. I talked to my kids and said I’m going to approach this without fear.”

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