Welcome Board Member Celeste Cantú!

Celeste Cantú is a Master Gardener in Riverside County focusing on drought tolerant landscaping. She previously served as general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA). While there, she led the development of the Crest to Coast, Corner to Corner Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plan called One Water, One Watershed (OWOW) that integrated water-related issues, joined entities and hundreds of stakeholders seeking to create a new vision of sustainability for the Santa Ana River Watershed. 

Prior to her tenure at SAWPA, Celeste served as the executive director for the California State Water Resources Control Board. During the Clinton Administration, she served as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development State Director for California. She served as planning director for the city of Calexico and later as executive director for the Imperial Valley Housing Authority. She has a bachelor’s degree from Yale in urban planning and policy and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. 

In addition to the Sustainable Conservation Board, Celeste serves on the following boards: San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, The Water Foundation, Water Policy Center Advisory Council, Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Water Solutions Network Advisory Council, and UC President’s Advisory Council for Agriculture and Natural Resources .

Background in Water

What inspired you to pursue a career in water management and conservation?

Well, I intentionally rejected water when I was quite young. I grew up in Calexico, California on the California/Baja California border, where water is incredibly important. I made the determination, accurately, that water was the venue of old men and I decided, no, that’s not for me.

From a young age I wanted to do something that helped my friends, a lot of whom were in families who migrated with crop harvests. When they had to go to so many different schools they didn’t thrive like they would normally if they were in one school. So, in my limited understanding, I made a commitment to have a job where I could build year-round housing so they could stay in one place and be my friends all year.

I stayed true to that commitment, majored in urban planning and policy, came back to my hometown, and was hired as planning director. I left the city of Calexico to join the Housing Authority, where I worked for 20 years, and built a lot of housing for farmworkers. Next, I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, where they had three mission areas: housing, economic development, and utilities, which included water. When I got there, the water people needed some help.

Even though I was right that water was still the venue of old men, I was sucked in. Working in water and water conservation has changed substantially. It is a wonderful career for a woman today, and it’s been a wonderful second part of my career for me.

Is there a professional achievement that you’re especially proud of?

I would say developing and implementing the One Water One Watershed plan. It is known as OWOW and, that was just a great acronym. People would say, “Oh, wow” and we’d say “Yeah, that’s it!”

I advocated for this policy when I worked for the state — we really needed a watershed-based, integrated approach that treats different kinds of water as “One Water.” I left the state and went to the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA.) They had a tradition of doing watershed-wide planning for 50 years, so my vision was not novel in that area. Because of that, we were able to move to a 21st-century watershed solution with OWOW.

I learned there was some will to embrace Integrated Water Management, but institutions, their political boundaries, and organizational capacity presented obstacles. Engineers look at a problem and say, “How do I peel this onion to get a discrete problem that I can fix?” On the other hand, I was trained to look at a problem, and then step back to put it in its environment, understand the entire system, and see what is affected by and influences that problem. And I’m not saying one is better than the other, you need both. But what has traditionally been managed by solving discrete problems one after another doesn’t understand the downstream/upstream impacts.

 An integrated approach was, “Okay, let’s see this problem in the larger landscape, the whole watershed for example.” Then, we could see how many players we can bring into the solution and how many benefits we can generate. This was all predicated on the concept that finding a solution high in the watershed, where it’s more rural and generally easier and less expensive to fix, can cascade benefits all the way down to coastal population centers. This approach then creates benefits for everything between the headwaters and the coastal community.

Managing the Drop

Is your desire to find watershed-level solutions and foster collaboration in the water conservation space what led you to become involved with Sustainable Conservation?

Absolutely. Sustainable Conservation is nailing it! You’ve been doing this for longer than most and dare to go to new universes to do what is traditionally called environmental work – but doing it with respect, understanding, and appreciation of what the business or the agricultural communities need and can handle. Your work is the manifestation of the most important thing in water management: collaboration.

We know we can’t create any more water, so the only thing we can do is use those drops as efficiently as possible. I say follow the drop and manage it as it migrates through the watershed. We’ve long thought of water as a commodity like gasoline, and we allocate it or somebody buys it and then it’s considered “used.” But in fact, we can account for all of those drops. None of them disappear, they just go different places and we can capture them again and again. Mother Nature has always managed this way.

It’s called the water cycle for a reason.

It’s just the water cycle. If our planning scope is consistent with the hydrologic cycle, and we look at where we can tweak our management processes, we can get more uses out of a single drop.

How will your professional and personal experience lend you a unique perspective in the Sustainable Conservation boardroom?

I hope I can give the organization support and put wind in your sails. I hope I can contribute where you need me. You’ve had profound, systemic successes, and whatever I can do to support the organization to allow you to be robust and continue the work, I’m willing to do.

What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities for the future of water conservation in California?

One challenge is California’s aridification, and we need to find solutions. We can’t do business as usual. My greatest hope is in collaborations where we can use a single drop more than once. This is where the power of green infrastructure comes in.

California, has doubled down on investing in green infrastructure, and it works. But we have to show people how it can work. California is ahead of the curve because of groups like Sustainable Conservation that help inform a 21st century reality.

Another big challenge is that our different institutions, water and waste water districts, were designed to meet the needs of the 20th century and that falls short today as we are confronted with 21st century challenges. We’re organized in geographic, discipline, and political silos, just to name a few. One of the reasons SAWPA was so successful was our institutional jurisdiction was the entire watershed.

When you’re not immersed in water conservation work, what helps you unwind?

I like to garden, and I swim almost every day. I have a family, my kids are grown, but I still feel involved with them. I like to cook, I like to eat, and I like to entertain my friends. I also have the privilege of volunteering for wonderful organizations.

As a Master Gardener, I’d love to hear your favorite water-saving tip for homeowners or people who want to create sustainable outdoor spaces.

Get rid of grass and put in any number of beautiful, flowering, time-saving, interesting, drought tolerant plants that can save you up to 80% of your water budget. I use about 20% of the water most people use in their yard. Select plants that want to grow where you live, and create a relationship with your yard.

We believe in the power of relationships to reveal creative strategies that protect the natural resources on which we all depend. Let’s explore new ways to stick together in support of a healthy California. Connect with us!