Creating an Inclusive Water Industry for All

Wilton Blake, Career Stories, Women in Water

When Joone Kim-Lopez escaped South Korea under the threat of an invasion by North Korea, she was eight years old and didn’t speak English. Although she was happy to be in a country where women have more freedom and rights, she still felt isolated.

With a great deal of effort, Kim-Lopez transformed that isolation into a burning desire to help others. That desire has influenced every decision she’s made throughout her life.

After a stellar career in law enforcement where she received the Silver Medal of Courage for bravery under fire, Kim-Lopez sought to transition into a new profession. Her search led her to the water industry.

After serving at several agencies, she ultimately became the general manager of the award-winning Moulton Niguel Water District, which provides water, wastewater, and recycled water services to six cities in South Orange County, California.

“One of the things I love about being a general manager is that I get to create a nurturing world for my staff that generates a sense of belonging,” explains Kim-Lopez. “It’s my responsibility as a leader to make them feel safe and fulfilled in their roles. Essentially, I get to create a workplace that I’ve always wanted for myself. That’s so rewarding.”

Kim-Lopez doesn’t fit the typical profile of a water manager. She’s not an engineer, scientist, or technician. Consequently, other people’s opinions of her have had a stifling effect on what she could accomplish early in her career. To this day, the greatest challenge she faces in the water industry is the status quo.

“I used to be very limited in what I could do,” shares Kim-Lopez. “When I tried to bring my perspective to the table, colleagues often told me that things have always been done a certain way, and that’s the way they are going to stay. Over the years, I’ve discovered my own ways of navigating the water industry. However, the status quo is still a powerful force against change.”

According to Kim-Lopez, change is difficult for many people. But that hasn’t stopped her from innovating.

Eight years ago, Kim-Lopez’s agency formed the California Data Collaborative. This nonprofit organization is a network of water managers and researchers who have come together for a common purpose: to use technology and data to save water and improve reliability for the benefit of all Californians while informing water policy and operational decision-making.

Her agency also created Future Leaders of Water. This initiative seeks to inspire a new generation of water professionals and equip those already in the industry with the leadership skills necessary to maintain a safe water supply and make it sustainable.

“The thing I really enjoy is serving people and learning from them,” admits Kim-Lopez. “These initiatives enable me to help people and connect them with resources they otherwise would not have access to.”

Kim-Lopez is pleased that her agency has a significant impact on the communities it serves. “We’re very much a part of this community,” says Kim-Lopez with a smile. “We care about the economy and what happens around us. So, as we evolve, we evolve together. In this way, we are shaping water in our region by bringing innovation, new partners, and vital resources that come from beyond our service area. All of this is allowing us to be better and do better.”

When it comes to doing better, Kim-Lopez focuses on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the water industry.

“My dream is that this industry will become much more humanized,” says a hopeful Kim-Lopez. “There are enough solutions. But there are too many egos that get in the way of progress. We need to put people first and develop the next generation of water leaders who must be more diverse in terms of race, gender, and life experiences.”

As a woman of color, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are things that she believes must be embraced and promoted throughout the water industry. That’s something she is extremely passionate about.

“Because of my gender and race, I’m an outlier in my field. That’s very unfortunate,” says Kim-Lopez. “Leaders in the water industry must come to understand that it’s not enough to say that the industry is inclusive. We must be very intentional about what we do to embrace diversity, generate the social and political will to improve and hold ourselves accountable to a defined timeline. Inclusion isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s good for business.”