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Delta Flows: Sexism at MWD is No Surprise for Delta Activists

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the Los Angeles City Council is threatening to cut ties with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California over the dozens of sexual harassment complaints filed by women and LGBTQ employees.

Now Los Angeles union local AFSCME1902 has joined Southern California legislators asking for a full audit of the sexual harassment complaints filed at MWD.

We concur. This audit must happen. Women and members of the LGBTQ community are not to be harassed, intimidated, and scared to work for a living, at a public agency. The employees written about in these news accounts were full of pride working for a system that delivered clean water to the community it served – but were then transferred miles away from home, forced to feel fear, and experienced pay cuts for speaking up for their own protection.

MWD Institutional Culture is an Ongoing Problem
For years, we have documented how institutional malfeasance at the MWD has been part of the various iterations of the Delta tunnel/s project; from Brown Act violations to misleading retail water districts about their required participation in bond repayments for the tunnels; from obfuscation on how parcel taxes would be used to finance the project to outright false promises about benefits for fisheries from tunnel operations. In December, a MWD Board Member claimed falsely that Delta residents were in favor of the current Delta tunnel project, even though I told him of our continued opposition to the project a few months earlier at another public meeting.

A few years ago, when Restore the Delta was attending regular MWD meetings in person, we were struck by the disinterest from MWD management (mostly male) and a number of their male board members when presented with comments by women, particularly women of color, in regard to rates, water quality, and the tunnel in public planning. Half our staff, watching the meetings from downtown Stockton, would capture screenshots of distaste running across the faces of MWD management when responding to women, making comments expressing concern about community needs.

Even more disturbing was watching security move around during these same meetings with guns in holsters – totally over the top – as a response to a group made up mostly of moms, grandmas, peace-loving environmentalists, old-school older folks in nice summer sandals and clothing with straw hats, who rode to the meetings on buses with water bottles stuffed in their tote bags. Our group also included ministers, disability activists, and small group community leaders organizing around public health. These were not folks with weapons, muscle, or intimidation tactics. Just getting to MWD meetings in the heat took a toll on them. They were pastors from South-Central LA Black churches, gray-haired women who spoke Spanish as a first language, and a few actors (this is LA) who delivered beautifully polished comments with power and poise about how people without money could not afford higher water bills. These were not insurrectionists. They were passionate but polite. They followed the rules. They dressed in their best clothes and studied their positions in small groups to be prepared to give meaningful comments. They were representatives from a broad section of the greater community participating in democracy.

But security was there in number, guns ready. Disabled participants were not allowed to sit in chairs that were reserved up front for special guests, and they were forced to crawl over others for seating. MWD’s chairs for public seating are mostly broken, causing backaches in even 20-year-olds. Repairing seating is not needed if you do not want the public present. Unwelcoming. Disinterested. Intimidation of community. Period. This was the culture at MWD that we experienced first-hand.

This week, as we reflect on how unwelcomed we were when we attempted to participate in democratic decision-making around the Delta tunnels project, we struggle with frustration and anger as we learn more about the sexual harassment scandal unfolding currently at MWD. Both of these scenarios speak to the outsized influence of MWD throughout the state, and its no-holds-barred approach in executing power over people for its agenda – whether over people’s lives locally or over the people’s water resources throughout California.

The International Union for Nature Conservation writes extensively about the link throughout the world between environmental destruction and gender inequity.
One of their statements at IUNC.org is:
“Governments and environmental organizations need to better understand the links between gender-based violence and the environment, advance greater legal protections, and take gender-specific risks into account in their policies and interventions.”

California Needs Modern Water AgenciesIt is time for California Legislators and Governor Newsom’s office to take heed of this intersectionality between harassment and violence directed at women in the workplace and poor environmental outcomes in our water institutions. In recent years, the California Department of Water Resources has dealt with sexual harassment cases at Oroville Dam, which required a federal bailout for repairing its spillway. Now MWD is facing scrutiny and questions as to whether binding relationships are irrevocably broken.

If MWD cannot hold onto its local member agencies over broad systematic mistreatment of its workforce, how can it ever hope to pay for a Delta tunnel project – a project that further symbolizes its overreach for power at the expense of California’s people, land, and waters?

The brushing off and quick dismissal of harassment and violence against women within MWD shows how MWD leadership treats these cases as individual misconduct.  But repeated cases of harassment show the dysfunction of a deeply embedded power system of patriarchy that must be transformed in this government institution. Or perhaps the misconduct is so wide and extreme it should lead to a re-evaluation of MWD’s charter?

This dated power structure that cannot provide seating for disabled constituents, that dismisses women participating in democracy, that hides the true costs of the second-largest infrastructure project in California, that lobbies against endangered species protections, that sees land, water, species, and its own female employees as disposable, no longer serves the present.

Women across the world, mostly women of color, suffer disproportionate impacts from water pollution. This is because more women live in poverty. The same is true in California. Our institutions need to be rebuilt to hold women as equals in the workforce and to bring equity to their communities in terms of environmental justice. We need new water institutions that will serve all people and their own employees with respect, dignity, and with an eye on the best environmental outcomes for all of California’s people. That is why we think MWD has outlived its purpose.