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Racquel Rancier earned her master’s degree in water policy and management in 2012, working with Professor Aaron Wolf to examine tribal water rights. After graduating, she worked for the Oregon State Legislature and then became a senior policy coordinator with the Oregon Water Resources Department. We caught up with Rancier to learn about her career path, the challenges of water management in Oregon and the must-have skills for the field.
You grew up near Los Angeles, a place that has a very complicated history with water. Did this fact influence your career path?
Yes. I grew up in a small rural town about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles. As a kid, I would pass the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, which takes water almost 200 miles from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Owens Lake used to be the largest lake by surface area in the United States, now it is mostly dry – a conflict written about in many books, including Cadillac Desert. Little did I know that this site, among many others, would lead me into the water policy realm.
You weren’t always in water, though. You worked in TV! How did you make that transition?
Yes, many people are surprised to hear that I used to work for E! Entertainment Television and G4. I didn't actually watch TV that much. While my coworkers read the latest celebrity news, I was reading about the California Bay-Delta. I was fascinated by the water challenges there, as well as in the Klamath Basin, Owens Valley and Los Angeles. I found volunteer opportunities and attended a couple conferences, including the UNESCO World Water Conference. I took tours of water facilities, interviewed professionals and networked pretty well for an introvert! From there, I applied to and was accepted into graduate programs at Oregon State University and UC Santa Barbara. Obviously, I chose Oregon State!
Is there any such thing as a typical day for you?
No. My position requires me to know a little about a lot, and to know what questions to ask to help us make decisions. Some days, I have to dive deep into groundwater science and the corresponding laws and social dynamics. I also write or edit a lot of the external materials and am the press contact for the agency. I testify before the Water Resources Commission and Legislature on a regular basis, and have to quickly assess whether legislation impacts our agency or water resources.
You've been involved in some interesting legislation, including a bill that would improve dam safety. Can you tell us about this bill?
Oregon’s dam safety statutes have been essentially unchanged since 1929. And yet, our dams are aging. We also have increased understanding of seismic risks, flood potential and internal erosion. Even with knowledge of these potential hazards, we had to wait for a dam to be unsafe before we could require the owner to act. So, the Department introduced House Bill 2085 during the 2019 Legislative Session. The bill created a cooperative program to work with owners of dams – noting the huge costs associated with repairs and the importance of dams in storing water – while also balancing the need for action because of the risks to people and property.
As we look ahead to population increases, climate change and other water stressors, do you see your job changing in the future?
Yes. Water management is getting increasingly complex. For example, the Klamath Adjudication began in 1975, and the issues there are still unresolved – and that is not unique. But I would argue that these issues take time because they are important and get at the very core of our beings. We need water for drinking and sanitation, for the energy we use, for the food we eat, for the landscapes we love, and the life and species we value. Yet there has been insufficient investment in water data, infrastructure and management. We also need more efforts to engage the public and make information accessible. We need data, but we also need to facilitate conversations, bring people together, build trust, distill really complex science and data, and help find a path to move forward.
What advice would you give someone trying to enter your field?
In the water field, you have to persevere, because there are no easy solutions. Confidence, humility and gratitude are all musts. This may seem contradictory, but when you rely on so many others within and outside of an organization, they are all important.
If I am giving career advice, regardless of the field, I often tell new professionals:
By Abby Metzger
August 22, 2019
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