As the November elections near, today my focus is on South Bay politics. I’ve got my ballot in front of me and there are quite a few boxes I just don’t know how to check. So, for at least one box, I decided to call up a candidate and ask her for an interview.
She is running for the Division 4 seat of the South Bay Irrigation District against incumbent Terry Thomas.
South Bay Irrigation District (SBID) is the elected entity that governs Sweetwater Authority and the Sweetwater Authority operates the water system for National City, western portions of Chula Vista and Bonita.
SBID has 5 elected members, while two seats are appointed by the Mayor. One of the current appointees is the Mayor himself. Division 1 and 4 are the seats up for elections.
Lisa Cuestas works as Chief Operations Officer at Casa Familiar, a non-profit organization. She has lived with her family in Chula Vista since 2000. She has a strong belief in the importance of public service and since she grew up surrounded by water issues, this was a political position she was very passionate about.
I met Lisa in her office in San Ysidro and asked her a few questions.
Why did you decide to run for a seat on the Irrigation District?
LC: I am originally from Tuscon, Arizona and, as you can imagine, water is always an issue there. It’s even more of an issue when you have a father who has been working in the Tuscon water department for the last 20 years.
When I was very young, my father started working for the city and transferred over to the water department. As a consequence, I know a lot of the base issues. Growing up, I heard him talk about issues with administration and how people see water, but don’t understand how complex of an issue it is. For Arizona it’s always an issue. They’ve also been able to implement some really smart decision making in Arizona to secure resources.
How much time and dedication will it be if you are elected?
Three to five meetings per month. Then there’s committees. There’s also a lot of time that you need to invest to read and inform yourself. It’s a little complex. That’s just the way water is. However, it’s one of those things that doesn’t scare me because I’ve heard “water” all my life.
Are you going to be addressing drought issues?
I talked to the general manager of Sweetwater Authority and I asked if they had applied for Prop 84 drought funds. The good thing was that they did apply and they are very hopeful that they will acquire 5 million dollars to expand the Sweetwater desalination plant. So that’s the kind of thing the board needs to be pushing.
I think SBID does one or two grants per year. However, with the water bond up on the ballot, more and more people are realizing how much of an issue water is. I think there’s going to be a lot of potential for some dollars that will be out there that we’ll have to compete for. However, we need to make it a priority to be really aggressive on that and make sure that we’re accessing those funds and not always putting the pressure on the rate payers to figure out how we are going to create sustainability.
Drought is a reality and we’re likely going to be in drought for several more years. History shows that droughts don’t last for two or three years, droughts last for five to ten years. If that’s the case, then we need to start to make decisions and be really aggressive now on how we’re going to secure funding and what kind of new projects or expansion of projects that we need to start to plan for now.
So you are positive on desalination for Sweetwater?
I do think these are one of the many things we need to be looking at.
What are some of the other things?
We collect about 32% of what we use. Most of it comes from the Colorado River and the Bay Delta. That’s the issue. There’s not enough water there, so that’s where we have to start to look and see where we can tap into other resources. There are scientists who are already working on this stuff. They are already working with Sweetwater Authority.
How are you getting the word out there about your campaign?
To start, it’s confusing because it sounds like two separate things. South Bay Irrigation District sounds like something totally different than Sweetwater Authority. When people get their bill every couple of months, it says Sweetwater Authority. South Bay Irrigation District is not something people in Chula Vista or National City are accustomed to even seeing out there.
When you go to vote for something that says South Bay Irrigation District, Division 4, that was one of the biggest challenges that I saw. Myself and people who are helping me with my campaign really made the commitment to knock on doors and to talk about the connection between the two. I think what’s happened too is that you may vote for someone, but water hasn’t been an important issue we considered in the past twenty years.
Now that we’re in such a critical situation, it’s more at the forefront of people’s minds. My goal is to make sure we are connecting those two things and that voters are getting to know me. It’s pointless to do this if you really don’t get out in front of people and that’s what I’m glad I have been encouraged to do. It doesn’t scare me. A lot of people aren’t really aggressive on knocking on doors and walking precincts in their district, but it really opened my eyes to how people see water. Because of recent rate increases that were put into effect September 1st, all of a sudden, as soon as I would talk water I had people’s attention.
I was hearing, “I don’t even think I use a whole lot of water and my bill almost doubled.”
I met people who are on fixed incomes, a lot of older folks, seniors that live in my district. It was a great way for me to understand the constituency and, if being elected, who I need to represent. I think that’s one of the most important things and why South Bay Irrigation District is so important because Sweetwater Authority has to be held accountable to a constituency.
Those elected really need to understand the different kinds of constituencies, the different kinds of businesses and water users.
What I’m learning is that water is a holistic issue. Coming from a non-profit, everything is holistic to me. It’s an economic issue, an environmental issue and it’s a social issue. If we don’t address all three things, we’re not educating and involving and engaging the community about water-wise practices.
Are people promoting big water uses where the apartment complexes are, with condo owners, with businesses that are in Chula Vista?
It’s great to push the environmental aspects of it and we have to educate people on making sure they use water in a way that they can afford and that is responsible. But it is an economic issue at the end of the day and if I can’t afford to go through a process or implement something in my own house that will help me be more efficient with my water use, or if the process to have a grey water system in my home isn’t very easy to manage or to get to or it’s too costly, then I’m not going to do it.
We have to remind Sweetwater, we have to remind the board and us as users that all those three things have to be equally important and understand the connections so that it makes sense for people’s pockets. If we can’t afford water, then we have a really big issue. If we can’t afford to make conservation practices and smart use of water affordable and a manageable system to be able to get approval that grey water system is a healthy system and is doing what it needs to be doing, then we’re never going to be able to address short term or long term when we are in a drought like this.
I feel that the board and my incumbent needs to be more aggressive. As a group, it needs to be much more aggressive on being able to connect with the community, to be their advocates and the reason why you are elected is to be an advocate for constituents.
How is your campaign going?
The first weekend we found that people were willing to talk and people were willing to share information. They were saying, “Well you can see my front lawn. I haven’t watered it in a month. That’s why the grass is all gone.”
I ran into a lot of people who had beautiful lawns, but nowhere in sight was grass. It was succulents. It was rock gardens. And so many people were saying, “Yes, that’s what we have to do now.”
There are so many other ways to embrace the natural landscape. I hadn’t noticed so much until now that there are homeowners that even have a little sign: “Natural habitat”. We have to keep seeing more of that and make it feasible and something that all of Chula Vista will see as a natural step.