Empowered to take water conversation to the next level

Work didn’t stop with retirement for Swanee Edwards, it just got more meaningful and possibly even busier, especially after she completed Valley Water’s Water 101 Academy. The south county resident found ways to use her vast experience and expertise from her construction management career to make an impact in her community through activism.

In 2019, Valley Water, formerly known as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, launched the Water 101 Academy. The program educates the community about the inside workings of Valley Water through a series of free workshops, empowering them to become Water Ambassadors within their communities. Since access to safe, clean and reliable water is a priority for Silicon Valley, this program helps deliver vital information to the community.

Swanee was no stranger to water issues nor Valley Water when she joined the first Water 101 Academy in 2019. She was appointed to serve on the Perchlorate Community Action Group, where she worked with community leaders and Valley Water. The group was established in 2003 as part of the plan to contain and clean a 10.5-mile chemical plume that threatened the water supply of nearly 800 well-users in south county. During her ten years of service with the group, she witnessed the power of local organizing and how an engaged community can help protect natural resources, including groundwater supplies.

One thing that quickly becomes apparent when speaking with Swanee is that she was a water ambassador long before participating in the Water 101 Academy. So why even join?

“The ambassador program was hugely effective in me being able to say with confidence what is going on when questions arise,” Swanee said. Participating in this program helps community members gain interest and understanding of regional water needs; it also provides a deeper appreciation for the critical role of Valley Water in securing safe, clean water for Silicon Valley. After her participation, Swanee has a better understanding of the cost of projects and the use of taxpayers’ money. She met and spoke with subject matter experts working on the projects and witnessed the technology and vast infrastructure at work. “[It] was an amazing moment and light bulbs going on,” says Edwards about the Valley Water Infrastructure tour she participated as part of the Water 101 Academy.

Swanee has a new perspective after she completed the Water 101 Academy. She currently serves on the Water Committee of the local Sierra Club chapter. She is also part of a neighborhood emergency preparedness committee, serving a 250-retiree community in Morgan Hill. Through her work with this group, she has been able to use her Water 101 Academy training to address questions raised and help dispel misinformation and ease some of the residents’ water and flood worries linked to the Anderson Dam Seismic Retrofit Project.

Having been involved in support of the Upper Llagas Flood Protection Project, she has been able to observe the progress made to reduce the flood risk in her community. “I was involved with the kickoff of Llagas, and was able to celebrate that better; knowing how the money was raised and how the U.S. Army Corps was engaged. I had a much better appreciation of the project because of the ambassador class,” she affirms.

As she prepares for what is ahead, Swanee is already looking forward to upcoming projects to increase local water storage capacity.

“I’m excited about Pacheco storage and the opportunity there. That’s going to be interesting; it’s bigger than Anderson.” One of her next efforts includes making sure the state’s planned high-speed rail project doesn’t disrupt plans for the Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project. Upon completion, the current local surface water storage capacity will be doubled, providing a more stable and locally managed water source to Silicon Valley. The expanded reservoir will hold more water than all 10 Valley Water reservoirs combined and would be able to supply one year of water for 1.4 million residents in an emergency.

As she reflects on her experience, Swanee sees only benefits in participating in the Water 101 Academy and becoming a Water Ambassador.

Members of the 2019 Water 101 Academy during the second session of the academy.

When speaking with prospective participants, she often poses the same question: “What harm could it do to learn more about how the water district works, especially when water issues are so very important?” She encourages everyone to look within our communities, find one or two issues we can get behind and get involved. “Each one of us has a duty to find an issue where we can make a difference or try to make a difference; without water, there is no life. I can’t think of anything more important than that.”

Valley Water 101 Academy

You too can become a water ambassador. Applications for the next Water 101 Academy will be available in fall 2020. To learn more, please visit: https://www.valleywater.org/water101academy

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