Engaging the next generation ranks high on the California water community’s crowded priority list. Finding and training enough workforce professionals to replace retiring baby boomers usually comes to mind, but what about the elected leadership that will guide public water agencies through the 21st Century?
At least one ACWA member agency is pursuing a novel approach to this question. Scotts Valley Water District started a Junior Associate Board Member Pilot Program in 2019 that sought out two people between the ages of 16 and 26 to serve as non-voting board members. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that quickly followed, the initiative demonstrated enough potential for board members to make it permanent in late 2021.
Today, two young women participate as junior associate board members at the local water agency in Santa Cruz County. Annie Finch, 24, is one of them. She heard about the pilot program from her mother, who receives Scotts Valley Water District’s newsletter. Her experience reflects much of the impetus behind the program, as well as its promise.
“There’s so much that goes into supplying water to Scotts Valley, both in the short- term and long-term, and I had never had any reason to learn about how this resource got to my tap,” Finch explained in an email. “I’m not a homeowner. I am not the one who pays the bill that comes from the Scotts Valley Water District. Which is one of the reasons that I applied for the program.”
For Scotts Valley General Manager Piret Harmon, the program’s benefit is a two-way street, where young residents benefit from learning about their community’s water management and the district gains value from receiving their fresh perspectives. This program also complements the district’s public involvement effort of including community members on board committees.
During visits to area schools, Harmon learned that many students did not know a locally elected water district board even existed. While not necessarily surprising, it did help highlight an opportunity.
“Most of the decisions made by the board and implemented by the staff are going to impact the next generations, but we’re not getting their input,” Harmon said.
Launching the Junior Associate Board Member Program has not been without challenges. The first was simply getting the word out and finding interested participants. Scotts Valley Water District announced the opportunity through bill inserts, ads in local newspapers, its newsletter and social media posts, asking applicants to commit to a one-year term. Three people applied, with Finch and another applicant, Noelle Downing, interviewed by the board and appointed. That was January, 2020.
“And then, you know what happened next,” Harmon said.
Scotts Valley Water District was already looking at launching digital board meetings before the COVID-19 shutdown hit, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory. Another challenge was helping the junior board members to understand the complexities of the water management and feel confident enough to share comments and ask questions during board meetings. To encourage more participation, they were paired with board members who served as mentors and discussed upcoming meetings in advance.
Outside of board meetings, Harmon and board members see the junior associate board members as district ambassadors who share information about Scotts Valley Water District’s projects and activities with family members and their social network.
“I think we’re going to start seeing the results five years down the road,” Harmon said.
Meanwhile, the program’s overall value and the logic behind it are obvious.
“The program has helped us to connect with a younger demographic at the start of their careers. We’re planting seeds for civic engagement and greater understanding of our work,” wrote Scotts Valley Water District Board President Ruth Stiles in an email. “It’s wonderful to offer young people insight into how public agencies work. These are the leaders of tomorrow.”