The face of California’s water world is changing

August 16, 2021
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
More women are taking leadership roles in California's water decisions. Top row, left to right: Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources; Eileen Sobeck, executive director of the California State Water Resources Control Board; Christina Babbitt, senior manager of the California Groundwater Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. Bottom row, left to right: Laura Cattani, director of Division 2 at the Kern County Water Agency; Jennifer Pierre, general manager for the State Water Contractors; Michelle Reimers, general manager of Turlock Irrigation District; and Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California's Water Policy Center.
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern

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In California’s water world, long dominated almost exclusively by men, women are blazing a path — sometimes straight to the top. 

“I think water is changing,” said Karla Nemeth, director of California’s Department of Water Resources. “There’s more and more of an understanding that as a society and even politically, we’re not going to get very far if litigation and leverage is how we manage our water resources.”

Nemeth said law and engineering backgrounds used to be strictly prioritized in water, but the field is opening up to other disciplines and collaborative skills.  

Nemeth, arguably one of the state’s most powerful water leaders, helms DWR, which manages California’s water resources, infrastructure and systems. That includes the State Water Project which stores and delivers water to more than 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. 

She started her path to water in consulting, where she worked with multiple water clients. That sparked her interest in water resources and she transitioned to work for a water district in Alameda County. Soon, she was working in Sacramento alongside Governor Schwarzenegger’s Natural Resources administration. 

In 2014 Governor Brown appointed her to a deputy secretary position and in 2018 to director of DWR. She was reappointed as director by Governor Newsom in 2019.  There has only been one other woman director of DWR, Linda Adams, who headed the department from 2003-2004. 

“You’re not a woman in water unless you have an ability to both get along with and be serious in the context of a pretty male dominated culture,” said Nemeth. 

More women are starting to make their way into water leadership because the issues in water are far broader than law or engineering, said Nemeth. But there is still more work to be done, she added. 

Nemeth wants to bring more women into water discussions to expose them to tough issues and the process of finding solutions. She said it’s important that women be in the room where water negotiations are taking place so they can see how people put water needs and interests on the table. 

Breaking the H2O ceiling

“It has been harder because of that very traditional, white male engineering realm or white male fishing community,” said Eileen Sobeck, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board. “We’re trying to recruit more women and minorities at the entry level and we’re trying to bring in and promote women and leadership at the top.” 

Sobeck came to water from an extensive federal background. She worked as an attorney for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in its early years. Then, she moved to the U.S. Department of Justice where she worked for 25 years. She also worked for the Department of the Interior on environmental issues such as western water and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion response. 

In 2017, after 38 years as a federal employee, she moved back to her home state of California and became the executive director of the powerful state Water Board, which oversees water rights, drinking water and will be the enforcement arm for the state’s new groundwater law. 

Sobeck thinks water entities could draw in more women by doing a better job of explaining the work. She said many people don’t understand that the state Water Board works on drinking water issues, helps to improve infrastructure and aims to get water to communities in need. 

“I think we have to do a better job of talking about what we do,” said Sobeck. 

Only woman in the room

Christina Babbitt has also had an impressive career in water. She worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA and for the past six years at the Environmental Defense Fund where she has worked on groundwater issues. 

“The male dominance isn’t something that’s unique to the water industry. It definitely ripples throughout other sectors,” said Babbitt, senior manager of the California Groundwater Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We have this term ‘water buffalos’ which is used to capture the situation in terms of having a small group of prominent white males who make decisions in the water sector.” 

But Babbitt also acknowledged that things are changing in water. Early in her career, she was usually the only woman in the room, she said. Now, she often sees many women. 

The nonprofit think tank Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) published a report in 2012 that broke down the size of California’s water industry. It estimated that nearly 53,000 people were employed in water. That doesn’t include nonprofits or consulting firms. 

But there isn’t much data on gender representation within water. 

The number of men in water has been a function of the fact that water is so closely tied to engineering and law, both historically male dominated fields of study, said Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center. Hanak agreed things have changed though. 

“Women have been moving into those fields more and more,” said Hanak. “In the 20 years that I’ve been working on California water you do see a shift over time, with the sector kind of mirroring the evolution of what’s happening in professions as they’re diversified more generally.”

Hanak said there seems to be an especially high number of women entering the regulatory side of water, particularly in high level management. 

Taking the local reins

Women are also leading on a local level. 

Laura Cattani was appointed as one of seven directors of the Kern County Water Agency in March. She is the only woman on the board and the second in the agency’s 60-year history. 

“Right now I just feel like I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” said Cattani, a member of a longtime farming family. She still manages the family’s Arvin farm.. 

The agency administers the contract with the State Water Project on behalf of 13 agricultural districts. It also supplies water to a portion of urban Bakersfield. 

Cattani is excited about more diversity in water and encourages “any and all women to get involved and think about water as either a career path or something to be involved in in any capacity.” 

Jennifer Pierre was shocked when she got the job as general manager of the State Water Contractors. The association represents 27 public water agencies. Pierre oversees all operations and works with DWR and other water agencies. 

 “I was pretty surprised I got the job because historically it’s been men but also engineers,” said Pierre, who studied environmental biology at UC Davis and worked as an environmental consultant before her current position. 

She’s seen California’s water world change as more women take charge. Bringing varied experiences to water is important, especially for women who often need to balance kids with demanding water jobs. 

“I think we need to be really, really vocal, and this is probably across all industries, that it’s okay to have a family and it’s okay that you have a life outside of work,” said Pierre. “I hope I can continue that path and continue to expand the space.”

Bringing something to the table

Michelle Reimers’ education and background in public affairs didn’t prevent her being hired as general manager of the Turlock Irrigation District in 2020.

“I never, ever thought I’d be running the utility. And that’s because I’m not an engineer, I’m not an attorney,” said Reimers. “Those are the only two professions that have been leaders of our organization or any other organization around us. So it was never even on my radar and I think that’s unfortunate.”

As general manager, Reimers oversees the district’s operations which include supplying water for 145,000 acres of farmland and power generation. She started at the district in 2006 in communications. 

Reimers is the first woman general manager of the district in its history. But she noted there is more work that needs to be done. There still hasn’t ever been a woman on the board of directors. And that’s the case for many irrigation districts, she said. 

Reimers wants to let young women know that it’s possible for them to lead. 

“We bring something different to the table,” said Reimers. “And that’s okay.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern }

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