This article was originally published by the Copper Courier.
Written by Araceli Cruz
Ylenia Aguilar is having a phenomenal decade.
After living for years in the US as an undocumented immigrant, she gained her citizenship in 2014. Two years later, she voted for the first time. One of the names on the ballot was her own, as a candidate for the Osborn School District governing board.
Aguilar won and is currently serving as the board’s president.
She won the election again in 2022, this time to serve on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board. Like her seat on the school board, the position is unpaid and volunteer-based. However, the role is a crucial service responsible for operating and maintaining the Central Arizona Project—a 336-mile canal system that brings Colorado River water to the Valley.
Deep Connection to Environmental Issues
As a former undocumented person living in various cities throughout the US and Mexico, Aguilar sees her new role on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board as something she’s been preparing for her entire life. Caring for and sustaining the environment isn’t simply something that Aguilar is passionate about—as far as she’s concerned, it’s part of her DNA.
“Indigenous Mexican people are people of the land, so my connection to the land and my roots has always been there,” Aguilar said in an interview with Copper Courier. “That is our connection to the planet, right? Whether we’re talking about the Anasazis in Arizona and those who invented irrigation systems and helped with the aqueducts, those are our indigenous people.”
“It’s the same thing in Mexico with the Mayans and the Aztecs. They were the first scientists. I think that is who we are as Latinos, as indigenous people. The environment is connected to us. We, by nature, conserve, especially if we come from a third-world country. Water isn’t just accessible to everyone.”
A Vital Role in Delivering Water
As a board member, Aguilar isn’t responsible for implementing regulation—cities and municipalities handle that aspect. Aguilar’s most important role is taxing and setting rates.
One issue she’ll confront during her six-year term is debt. The Central Arizona Water Conservation District board needs to pay back the $4 billion it cost to build the Central Arizona Project, which is the canal system that delivers the water.
“We’re a water wholesaler, so it is up to the cities and municipalities to pretty much set their water rates,” Aguilar explained. “That’s not something that we do. We’re a wholesaler, so we just sell the water.”
However, Aguilar sees her new role not just as strategic and logistical but also as educational, especially to Spanish-speaking residents.
“I want to ensure that we oversee the delivery of the 336 miles of water to cities, municipalities, agriculture, and tribes,” Aguilar said.
“I do want to ensure that we are sharing the information about what this role is in all the languages spoken,” she added. “We know that the second most used language in this country is Spanish, but there are other languages. There are indigenous people, and there are people from other countries that should have access to material and information in their languages.”
Aguilar said her priorities would be educating the community about her work within the conservation board and educating the community about the importance of conservation.
“Conservation is so critical to the future, not just of our state, but our nation,” Aguilar said. “We’re all impacted by climate change. We’re seeing natural disasters in Florida and throughout the world, so that is a result of our lack of understanding or awareness about our climate and our planet. I think that it’s already embedded enough, but we need to continue to have these conversations and share information and resources about what happens when we don’t recycle, when we don’t conserve, when we don’t protect our planet.”
Aguilar said one of the first things she will be dealing with is a challenging one: the task of water reduction—meaning reducing water delivery. According to Aguilar, agriculture uses up to 75% to 80% of the water the board delivers. If the board delivers less water for agricultural purposes, Aguilar believes they will be able to use water more efficiently.
Innovative Solutions to Water Conservation
One way to support them is by incorporating “AgTech”—agriculture and technology—which means adapting more technology to help conserve and use less water.
For example, one technology piloted through CAP called end drip was found to help reduce water waste in drip irrigation systems. The board also has to consider the types of crops being grown because certain crops waste more water than others.
Aguilar says she is committed to enacting major changes without severely impacting the agriculture industry in Arizona. She feels that with education and support, the board will be able to advocate for the agriculture community, especially migrant workers.
“If we reduce water and agriculture is impacted, the poorest communities will suffer the most with the increase in food prices,” Aguilar said. “Those are the after-effects of water reduction to specific areas, so we need to develop solutions and support systems for these communities that will be the most impacted by the water reduction.”