It sounds like a superhero team, and in a way it is. Meet The Water 6, a group of teachers, business owners, managers, and moms who have joined forces to rescue the Santa Clarita Valley Water Board.
The candidates hope to reform the water board, which in recent years has been corroded by cronyism that sidelined a lifelong expert, neglect that led to 13 water well shutdowns, rate hikes and even an alleged abuse scandal.
The Water 6 aims to reform all that, with Beth Braunstein and Christine Okamoto running together in Division 1, Valerie Bradford and Anna Kumar paired in Division 2, and Kathye Armitage and Stacy Fortner teaming up in Division 3.
Voters will get a chance to choose two of these Santa Clarita Water Board candidates from each district area on the ballots out now. Rather than run individually, they pooled their resources to promote themselves as a group, a natural fit since teamwork will be required to reform the board.
Change is long overdue.
A Toxic Agency
Instead of being a watchdog, the SCV Water Board is too often a lapdog for far-right special interests, heedless developers and corporate polluters.
In one of the most egregious lapses, the Water Board failed to challenge the 2017 expansion of the Chiquita Canyon dump, despite longtime objections from residents about the landfill potentially seeping pollutants into groundwater.
Members of the existing board also have a pattern of science denial. Many board members downplay climate change, or question its cause, even as California faces enduring droughts and record-setting heatwaves.
With more than a dozen wells closed recently due to pollution poisoning, Santa Clarita must import a significant amount of water now — and that depends on snow and rain in the Sierra Nevadas, which has steadily diminished.
The current board has also been hostile to experts while embracing partisan flunkies.
Last year, the board generated public fury by removing a lifelong water expert from the panel and replacing him with a Republican politician who had no expertise whatsoever.
Dean Efstathiou had worked for nearly four decades for the L.A. Department of Public Works, ten of those years as Chief Deputy of the nation’s largest waterworks, and had a degree in civil engineering from Cal State-Los Angeles, in addition to membership in several
His ousting made room on the board for the appointment of out-of-work ex-Assembly member Dante Acosta, a former car salesman and part-time actor with no comparable experience to Efstathiou. Acosta was known in the Assembly for rarely questioning party orders, and he was also notorious for not holding any job for longer than a few years. His installation on the board was criticized as a rubber stamp for far-right interests.
Despite the outrage at Efstathiou’s removal, the board installed Acosta anyway. (He quit after six months to take a job in Texas.)
Cleaning Up the Board
The Water 6 reformers vow to listen to experts rather than removing them. Each also believes safe drinking water and responsible, environmentally friendly management of the water supply .
Here’s a rundown of their priorities, listed alphabetically by candidate and district. Remember, you can vote for two in each region.
Beth Braunstein, Div. #1
Farmer, teacher, mother
Why should the water board matter to voters?
Braunstein: The water board directly controls the quality, quantity and affordability of our water. In addition, it is the steward of our ecosystems as they relate to our water, and our groundwater health in particular. The decisions made today will determine what kind of world our children and grandchildren will be living in.
What’s the value of having people like a farmer on the board?
Braunstein: Honestly, what I do shouldn’t matter. The water board represents the community at large, it’s meant to be run by civilians who collaborate with the staff of experts who work in our water divisions. I am committed to making sure that the decisions made by the Water Board are clear and understood by everyone. It is our water.
What is your top priority?
Braunstein: One, protecting our ground water. Two, raising awareness. These two go hand in hand. We must protect our ground water to ensure we have a safe reliable sustainable water source, while keeping the impacts of Climate Change in mind. The more we are aware of our water as a community, the easier this task will become. Many people aren’t aware that the water board even exists. We still have a long way to go.
Why run as a team?
Braunstein: We realized early on that we are running against a well funded establishment. The leadership in Santa Clarita is dominated by partisan conservatives who all work together to maintain power. While we each have a unique background and campaign, we share many values. If one of us wins, the change will be minimized by the rest of the board. If we want real, meaningful change, we need to flip more than a seat or two. What’s more, I think it is important to showcase women running and supporting each other. Representation really does matter.
Christine Okamoto, Div. #1
Business owner, mother, yoga instructor
Why is the water board important?
Okamoto: The water board also votes on all new developments proposed in the valley, and says whether or not we have enough water for the project. Unfortunately, the water board to date has pretty much always said “yes” when the real answer is “no.
Why should development be slowed?
Okamoto: For example, 40% of our groundwater wells are closed due to contamination, yet the water board always includes those wells when they talk about how much water is available. 52% of our water is imported from the Sierra snowcaps, which are melting due to climate change. Is this sustainable? I think not. We have groundwater issues. There are trees dying because the roots can’t reach the water table. And yet, the board keeps approving new developments.
Why should ordinary citizens serve on the board?
Okamoto: The SCV Water Agency is made up of water experts, scientists and engineers who handle the day to day operations and report to the board. The board members do not have to be scientists or have a background in water. They need to be able to ask the right questions, do some research, listen to scientists, talk to the people in the community and make decisions that are in the best interests of the residents of Santa Clarita.
Currently, the board members in general are not doing this. They are voting in the best interests of the developers and corporations who want to make money by expanding Santa Clarita at all costs.
Valerie Bradford, Div. #2
Business owner, human resources manager, mother and grandmother
Like the others, can you say why the water board should matter to voters?
Bradford: The role of the Water Board is to oversee the acquisition, maintenance, supply and cleanliness of the water resource for the SCV. There is no more important work.
Why would you say voters should elect you?
Bradford: Even though the only requirement to sit on the Water Board is to live in the district, I will also bring more than two decades of experience in corporate America that include, department management, employee supervision, department budgeting, writing policy and interpersonal skills at all levels. I believe that my skillset will be an asset to my position on the water board.
The cost of water is something you’ve listed as a priority. Why do you think the water board should work toward affordability?
Bradford: 9.7% of the population of Santa Clarita lives at or below the poverty level but our current water agency has no ‘rate plan’ for these households. That is a top issue for me.
Anna Kumar, Div. #2
Insurance agent, mother, school site council member
What about your experience makes you right for the water board?
Kumar: I worked with contractors for the first 15 years of my career, reviewing their contracts and insuring their assets. I then spent 2 years in the construction field myself. I’ve spent the last 6 years working with individuals and small business owners on a personal level to make sure they would have the proper protection. I have managed teams, training and making staffing decisions. Most importantly I’m open to learning and teaching. I think we can do better as a community and our current board could use some fresh new perspectives.
What are the top issues for you that need to be reformed?
Kumar: The things I’ve noticed about the current situation is there is a lack of transparency and education. They need to treat the public better.
What were your feelings about the removal of waterworks engineer Dean Efstathiou to make way for a Republican partisan?
Kumar: When you remove someone who is qualified and doing their job well just to plant someone who has political or personal motives is not to the benefit of the citizens of the community who the board is supposed to serve. I believe in all things people should come together of varying backgrounds both educational and socio-economical to work together. We do not always have to agree, and maybe shouldn’t all agree, but we should all be respectful and open to what others bring to the table.
Kathye Armitage, Div. #3
Groundwater sustainability advisor, public health professional, mother
What makes you qualified for the water board?
Armitage: The qualifications that I bring to my candidacy are a graduate degree (Master of Public Health from UCLA), nearly a decade of experience in the field of public health working on programs and policies focused on under-resourced populations in L.A. County. I understand the connection between the public’s health and how we use/misuse our natural resources. [I also have] a Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Natural Resources from Oregon State University. It was during my time in this program that I became focused on water management and policy in California.
What are the top issues that you believe the board needs to address?
Armitage: Protect our groundwater by carefully monitoring the levels and the clean up of contaminants. Continue to decrease our reliance on water imported from up north by continuing and expanding our conservation education programs, supporting the expansion of our recycled water program as appropriate. Supporting local stormwater capture projects, and supporting smart growth strategies like not developing and building over high groundwater recharge areas. Not substantially changing the way water naturally flows, and using permeable paving to allow for greater recharge of our groundwater.
What do the members of The Water 6 have in common?
Armitage: We are all mothers who understand that in order for our children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations to continue having clean and sustainable water, we need to elect leaders and decision-makers who acknowledge that our changing climate is a serious and urgent issue.
Stacy Fortner, Div. #3
Groundwater sustainability advisor, IT specialist, mother
What will be your top priorities if elected to the water board?
Fortner: Indebtedness and overspending, and water pollution [regarding] ammonium perchlorate, at least on the most local level. Take a step back from that and climate change is going to have a huge impact on water supplies in the future. In CA, we have what is known as a hydroclimate and much of our water supply is stored in the snow pack in the High Sierras. With climate change our precipitation will arrive as expected in the wetter seasons, however it will be in the form of rain instead of snow, and it will [cause] more intense rainstorms. Our snowpack will decline dramatically, which will create more volitility between wet and dry seasons and or years.
What is something you feel the current board has gotten wrong or failed to do?
Fortner: I am very concerned about the recent consolidation of the three agencies finances behind closed doors in an ad hoc committee. … This is NOT transparency — oh and our rates going up as a result of that ad hoc committee’s work. The Finance Committee just discussed it.
Why run as part of The Water 6 team?
Fortner: The Water 6 is beautiful example of how leadership, friendship, and mutual respect is conceived. This is how power is created — linked leverage. These ladies I feel will be forever friends of mine, and I’m both proud and excited to see this forge forward.