The Hired Gun: Jerry Brown Snags Bruce Babbitt as New Point Man For Delta Tunnels

Governor Jerry Brown has enlisted Bruce Babbitt, the former Secretary of Interior under the Clinton administration and former Governor of Arizona, to serve as a “special advisor” to the Brown administration on California WaterFix, the new name for the Delta Tunnels, and other Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta matters.

The hiring of Babbitt was first revealed in an opinion piece by Sacramento Bee Editor Dan Morain published on July 14 entitled, “Brown calls on Bruce Babbitt, as time runs short for water fix.” (…)

The California Natural Resources Agency did not publicly announce Mr. Babbitt’s hire, which is very curious for the appointment of such a prominent former federal official.

“We were asked about it by the Sacramento Bee,” said Nancy Vogel, deputy secretary for communications at the California Natural Resources Agency and former reporter for the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times.

“Mr. Babbitt has deep experience addressing complex natural resource issues and his counsel will be helpful as we work to resolve long-standing water supply and ecological challenges in the Delta – and balance human and environmental needs,” Vogel said. “Mr. Babbitt will be paid with state funds through the Department of Water Resources and will be working in both Washington, D.C. and California.”

His salary is approximately $10,000 a month, approximately $120,000 per year, according to Vogel.

Babbitt will be pushing for the completion of Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels, a Brown “legacy” project opposed by a coalition of recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, Indian Tribes, family farmers, Delta residents, environmental justice advocates and Delta residents.

On Tuesday, July 26, the State Water Resources Control Board will begin hearings regarding the California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s requested permits for new water diversion intakes on the Sacramento River and water quality certification under the Clean Water Act, essential permits required before the giant tunnels under the Delta can be constructed.

“We cannot sit on dead center,” Babbitt told Morain in an interview. “We must find a solution that meets all of the co-equal goals. So here I am.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta (RTD), responded to the news of his hiring by stating, “The former Interior Secretary has a long and illustrious career and is respected.”

“However, we are concerned that in the work he is doing on behalf of the California Department of Water Resources for Jerry Brown, we have yet another environmental leader clinging to the big water infrastructure projects of the past like the Delta Tunnels that will not solve the challenges posed by a megadrought and climate change.”

Bob Wright, senior counsel of Friends of the River, told Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press that environmental group leaders want to meet with Babbitt to discuss alternatives to the Delta Tunnels.

The Environmental Water Caucus has submitted to state officials “A Sustainable Water Plan for California  in May 2014 as a reasonable alternative to the Water Tunnels, but the Brown administration refuses to look at this or other proposals.. The plan is available at:….

A diverse coalition of family farmers, Tribal leaders, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, conservationists, Delta residents, environmental justice advocates and elected officials opposes the construction of the 30-mile long twin tunnels, since their construction would hasten the extinction of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species. The project would also imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

Trinity River ROD signed, temperature control devices built

During his stint as Interior Secretary under President Clinton from 1993 to 2000, environmentalists, the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk tribes and fishing groups applauded Babbitt for signing the landmark Trinity River Record of Decision (ROD) in December 2000 just before he left office.

The decision, for the first time, allocated 47 percent of the river flows for fish and downstream needs and the other 53 percent for irrigation and hydropower needs.

Some fishing and environmental groups also praised Babbitt’s shepherding of the construction of the temperature control devices on Shasta Dam and Whiskeytown Reservoir to provide colder temperatures to restore winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon.

In fact, I attended the ceremony for the unveiling of the temperature control device at Shasta Dam in 1998 with Larry Ward, then President of United Anglers of California, who appeared on stage with Babbitt and several other representatives of fishing and environmental groups.

After the event was over, Ward and I went to the only available place to eat, McDonald’s, and grabbed a couple of hamburgers. We saw Babbitt and his aide there and invited them to go fishing with us for rainbow trout on the Upper Sacramento River.

“I’d really love to go fishing with you, but I have to catch a plane in less than an hour,” Babbitt. “Thanks for the invitation.”

Babbitt oversaw controversial CalFed deal

However, Babbitt received much more critical reviews for his role in forging the CalFed deal between the Pete Wilson administration and the Clinton administration. The deal completely excluded recreational and fishing groups, Indian Tribes and most environmental groups, although several groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense and the Bay Institute, signed on.

“Peace has broken out,” claimed Governor Pete Wilson at the time.

In a major insult to fishermen throughout the state, organizers of the press conference to unveil the CalFed agreement in 1994 barred the late Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), from the event. The outrage that Grader and recreational and commercial fishermen expressed to the State Legislature, Clinton Administration and Wilson Administration culminated in a special committee hearing convened by State Senator Tom Hayden challenging the exclusion of fishermen from the event and the process.

Twenty-two years later, Morain, a supporter of the Delta Tunnels, gushed about Babbitt’s new role in pushing conveyance in his article.

“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-plug tunnels,” said Morain.

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

Babbitt forecasts “absolutely apocalyptic consequences” if tunnels not built

Babbitt has apparently swallowed Jerry Brown’s false claims that if the tunnels aren’t built, the sea level rise resulting from climate change and an earthquake will destroy the levees holding the saltwater from the bay and ocean back, resulting in the destruction of the Delta as a water supply for cities and irrigators.

“If this impasse continues between Northern and Southern California, it may lead to absolutely apocalyptic consequences,” he told the Bee. “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.”

But Babbitt’s position as a promoter of the tunnels, a project that Delta advocates say is the most environmentally destructive public works project in California history, is not surprising when you consider the Babbitt has been mired in controversy since leaving the Department of Interior in 2001.

Interior Secretary joined law firm representing environmental destroyers

After leaving the Department of Interior in 2001, Babbitt took a job as chief counsel of the environmental litigation department of Latham & Watkins, an international law firm. He represented the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort and its effort to expand the resort and use wastewater to make artificial snow, clashing with Native Americans and environmentalists.

“Babbitt has long proclaimed to be a defender of the environment and a friend to Native Americans. But his actions betray his words,” the Save the Peaks Coalition said on its website.

But that’s just one of the many controversies that have marred Babbitt’s “environmentalist” image. The late Alexander Cockburn exposed the anti-environmental policies of Babbitt in his July 30, 2001 article, “Bruce Babbitt: Man Without Shame.”

“Within days of landing his new job as a counsel in the firm’s Environmental Litigation shop, Babbitt could be found at the annual gathering of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the $3 billion lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, cheerleading for the planned Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump, on Western Shoshone lands in Nevada,” Cockburn wrote.

Babbitt’s law firm represented US Ecology, the nation’s biggest radioactive waste hauler and a prime candidate to get millions in contracts if Yucca Mountain was approved.

Babbitt’s clients also included two of the biggest developers on the California coast: Washington Mutual, developers of the Ahmanson Ranch in Ventura County and the Hearst ranch at San Simeon below Big Sur. But Babbitt was already promoting the interests of land developers even before he left Interior, Cockburn pointed out.

“During his tenure at Interior, Babbitt ushered through hundreds of complex lands swaps and federal buyouts of private property where potential development plans had been stymied by environmental restrictions,” said Cockburn. “ The deals often ended up with the developers getting much more money than their land is worth.”

Cockburn said the most high profile example was the Headwaters Forest bailout, “where corporate raider Charles Hurwitz ran off with more than $480 million for land that an Interior Department land appraiser concluded had a market value of less than $100 million.”

It is clear that Bruce Babbitt, like the governor that he is now working for, has two faces. One is the “environmentalist” image that he continues to promote.

The other face is a long time cheerleader for environmentally devastating projects like the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Dump and the Arizona Snowbowl fiasco, so it should be no surprise that Babbitt is now receiving a $10,000 a month salary from the Department of Water Resources  to promote the most environmentally destructive public works project in California history.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher