Dan Morain

Brown calls on Bruce Babbitt, as time runs short for water fix

Working from a bland, windowless office on the 13th floor of the Resources Building, one of California’s newest state employees focuses on the one issue from which all else flows, water.

Bruce Babbitt has signed on to help Jerry Brown fix what the governor calls the California WaterFix. They are of a type, Westerners, who understand the precarious balance between being environmental stewards and having millions of people inhabit deserts. And at 78, Babbitt and Brown understand that time is not limitless.

“We cannot sit on dead center,” said Babbitt, who, like Brown, feels an sense of urgency. “We must find a solution that meets all of the co-equal goals. So here I am.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, Babbitt served two terms as Arizona governor and overlapped with Brown’s first stay in the corner office. In their younger days, each man had presidential aspirations, though they never ran against one another.

In the 1990s, as President Bill Clinton’s interior secretary, Babbitt would come West regularly and confront the biggest environmental issues of the day: how to save the gnatcatcher from Orange County developers; spare the spotted owl from Northwest loggers; and preserve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Spin through descriptions of Babbitt’s time at Interior, and you cannot help but feel wistful for how policy once got resolved.

In December 1994, a Sacramento Bee writer had this to say: “California and the federal government struck a cease-fire ... in the state’s most important water battle, unveiling a new Delta plan with remarkably broad support.”

The L.A. Times followed with a story under the headline: “Landmark accord reached on use of Bay-Delta Water.” The Washington Post wrote about the “unusual show of bipartisan support for environmental protection” between Clinton’s Democratic administration and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

“Peace has broken out amid the water wars,” Wilson said at the time.

After his years in the Clinton Cabinet, Babbitt did time as a Beltway lawyer “billing ungrateful clients who didn’t want to pay their bills” and then pivoted, helping foundations and South American governments seeking to devise a plan for the wise development and preservation of the Amazon River Basin. And now he is back to his Western roots and water.

Babbitt, who commutes from his home in D.C., doesn’t need the job, and has no interest in wasting his time. He seeks common ground among the partisans and has little patience for those who blame others for causing the “dust bowl” or destroying the Delta. He is struck both by the polarization, and lack of engagement by the public and politicians, on this most vital issue.

Not lost on Brown, Babbitt is friends with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among the most influential voices on the topic, and has access to partisans in the San Joaquin Valley and in Southern California. One of Babbitt’s chief aides at Interior was Jay Ziegler. Now, Ziegler is policy director for The Nature Conservancy, one of the most influential environmentalist groups on water issues.

In the Clinton years, Babbitt’s undersecretary was John Garamendi. As the Democratic congressman who represents the Delta, Garamendi is a pointed critic of Brown’s tunnel project.

“It was a very wise move,” Garamendi said of Babbitt’s hiring. “He is very sensitive to the issues of the Delta and hopefully he will provide advice to the governor that will lead to a Plan B, an alternative.”

Last week, Brown gave Babbitt a tour at the room where he stores the binders that hold 30,000 pages of science behind the governor’s proposal, twin tunnels, 40-feet in diameter, 30 miles long. Babbitt long ago concluded that a “conveyance” is needed, if not the $15 billion-plus tunnels.

“If we don’t built the tunnels – sorry, if we don’t build a conveyance facility; I want to stay generic – we’re headed up a blind alley,” Babbitt said.

Pumps that push water into the aqueducts were devised before the Endangered Species Act was written, and surely cause degradation of endangered species including the Delta smelt. If Delta fisheries continue to decline, federal authorities could intervene and further restrict pumping.

Like Brown, Babbitt is convinced of the science of climate change, and believes sea level rise will render the pumps unusable. And at some point, today, tomorrow or 100 years from now, an earthquake will destroy the levees that help hold saltwater back, threatening the water supply for 20 million people and San Joaquin Valley farmland.

“If this impasse continues between Northern and Southern California, it may lead to absolutely apocalyptic consequences,” he said. “It could result in total victory or total defeat for one side or the other, with unpredictable consequences. The impasse won’t go on forever.”

Babbitt, like Brown, is a little like the fighter seeking one more shot at the title. Maybe Babbitt is Brown’s closer. Maybe the governor hopes Babbitt can throw a Hail Mary pass. Babbitt sees himself as moving ahead step by step, “3 yards and a cloud of dust.” His point is clear: Standing still is no solution.