Governor Brown Turns to Bruce Babbit to Forge Consensus on Delta Tunnels

Calif. governor brings out big gun on delta tunnels: Bruce Babbitt

Debra Kahn, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, July 20, 2016

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is turning to a prominent former Clinton administration official to help forge consensus on a plan to revamp the state’s central water hub.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt began working for the state last month to help coalesce public sentiment on Brown’s controversial proposal to build tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a massive water project that is seeking federal permits this year.

Nine years in the making, the $15 billion plan is Brown’s bid to ease reliance on the crumbling levees that route water from Northern to Southern California, supplying 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland.

Babbitt, who has a reputation for skillful dealmaking on water issues, helped achieve consensus in California’s water wars once before. As Interior secretary under President Clinton, he represented the federal government in 1990s talks that led to the so-called CALFED agreement, an organization of state and federal agencies that aimed to manage the delta for both water supply and environmental purposes, partly by building more reservoirs.

In an interview, Babbitt said he would keep an open mind and not act as an advocate for the tunnels.

“The governor has asked me to talk with all the parties, to take a careful look at this and see if we can find a pathway toward a broader understanding of what the project is and how it might eventually take shape,” he said. “I’m just getting started. My task is to try to listen, understand and find common ground.”

Babbitt is being paid $10,305 per month and started June 22, state officials said. His contract is open-ended, and he will be commuting from his home in Washington, D.C., to Sacramento every other week.

Babbitt — who served as governor of Arizona for two terms and ran for president in 1988 before serving as Interior secretary for eight years — is known for his successes in conserving land and preserving habitat for endangered species, often accomplished by breaking down institutional silos between agencies and using laws like the Antiquities Act as sticks to encourage voluntary land protections.

Babbitt’s reputation could help win over deeply skeptical opponents of the plan, a longtime California environmental and legal expert said.

“Babbitt has enormous credibility with the environmental community, which I assume is part of Gov. Brown’s motivation for bringing him in,” said Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the University of California, Davis, and a former state deputy attorney general. “If anybody can pull this off, I think it’s Bruce Babbitt.”

Babbitt has his work cut out for him. Critics, who include delta-area farmers and businesses, environmentalists, and a spate of Northern California House Democrats, have argued for years that the tunnels would take too much water from the delta at the expense of regional economic interests and fish, both endangered and commercially caught (Greenwire, Oct. 30, 2015).

“I hope he’s not as successful as last time,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “He’s a good negotiator. The problem is that we’re in an intractable situation where somebody is going to have to get less water.”

Jennings’ group and a dozen other environmental and fishing groups sent Babbitt a letter yesterday asking for a meeting and arguing that the tunnels would violate the Endangered Species Act by harming five threatened and endangered species. The groups put forth an alternate plan last year to reduce water exports from the delta through conservation and water recycling, retirement of farmland, fish-protecting screens on the water pumps and a host of other improvements.

“The problem is that we’ve got 153.7 million acre-feet of legal claims to water for 29 million acre-feet of average unimpaired runoff in the delta,” Jennings said. “We keep going through these elaborate kabuki dances, very expensive kabuki dances to avoid dealing with the problem.”

Babbitt said he hadn’t seen the letter but “will be happy to meet with them.”

Equally crucial to reaching consensus will be his ability to get water customers on board. While the tunnels are intended to improve the reliability of water deliveries — both by improving the system’s resistance to earthquakes and by avoiding killing as many endangered fish — water suppliers do not want to commit to paying for them until they know how much water they can expect out of them.

Hearings starting later this month at the State Water Resources Control Board should begin to answer that question. The agency will hear the state and federal governments’ arguments in favor of changing the locations where water is withdrawn from the delta. The hearings are expected to continue through the fall and into January 2017.

“We do think the former secretary can be helpful,” said Bob Muir, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which with 19 million customers in the Los Angeles and San Diego regions would likely be the tunnels’ largest beneficiary.

Babbitt said he didn’t know yet whether the tunnels would prove a thornier challenge than CALFED.

“I’m not ready to make any comparisons,” he said. “I’ll need to reassess all that. It’s been 25 years since that agreement was put together.”

Most recently, he has been working with private foundations on agreements to preserve the headwaters of the Amazon River Basin, which brings together indigenous groups, national parks, infrastructure developers and others in Peru and Bolivia. “You can see I’ve been fairly distant from California water,” he said.

While the CALFED agreement ultimately was abandoned, it serves as an example of the type of process that can work in California water, Frank said.

Because the federal government operates one of the two large water-delivery projects in the state, the Central Valley Project, it has a crucial role to play in state water debates, Frank said. But there are inherent conflicts between the Bureau of Reclamation, which sells water to contractors, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which protects endangered species that also need the water.

“One of the things Babbitt did so well was insist upon, communicate and lead a unified federal position with regard to California water issues,” Frank said. “The secretary of the Interior, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service and Reclamation, if he or she is fully engaged and in support of the process, that’s going to make a world of difference. Babbitt was very successful during the Clinton administration in leading and ensuring that unanimity within the so-called federal family.”

President George W. Bush’s administration then walked away from the process, killing its momentum, Frank said. Babbitt’s participation in the tunnels debate could revive the idea that compromise is possible.

“I’m glad with Babbitt’s involvement you have that sense of continuity,” Frank said. “A lot of the progress that was made with CALFED, I hope some of that momentum can be generated this time around. A key caveat, though, is a component of any future success is going to be the involvement of the federal government.”

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