Enviro pressure forces resignation of Calif. water commissioner

By Debra Kahn | 05/13/2015 01:00 PM EDT

A member of an influential California commission overseeing $2.7 billion in water spending stepped down this week after pressure from environmentalists over his position on building a dam.

A member of an influential California commission overseeing $2.7 billion in water spending stepped down this week after pressure from environmentalists over his position on building a dam.

Anthony Saracino, a longtime California water resources consultant, resigned from the California Water Commission on Monday after environmental groups raised a furor over his advocacy for considering the expansion of Shasta Dam, one of several major water storage proposals in the running to receive funds from the 2014 ballot-passed water bond. State officials have identified expanding water storage as one of the long-term methods of improving the state’s ability to weather droughts by increasing the ability to capture floodwaters and other excess runoff.

Saracino, 56, sent his resignation letter to Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Friday, citing pressure from "special interests," as well as potential future conflicts of interest stemming from his work as an industry consultant. He had been nominated for a second term in 2014 and was scheduled to have a confirmation hearing in the state Senate today.


"It was clear to me, talking to folks, that it was going to become a circus and a distraction from important commission activity, so I decided to step down now rather than waiting till January to avoid the circus," Saracino said in an interview. "It’s unfortunate that irrational special interests can influence water policy by essentially stifling public discourse and rational discussion."

Anthony Saracino
Former California Water Commission member Anthony Saracino. | Photo courtesy of Anthony Saracino.

Environmental groups sent a letter May 1 to the state Senate Rules Committee protesting his appointment after he made remarks defending Shasta at an April 15 meeting in Fresno. Shasta is the largest dam on the federally run Central Valley Project and has long been studied by the Bureau of Reclamation as a candidate for expansion. But California officials have been hesitant since an upstream tributary, the McCloud River, was protected under the state Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1989. Raising the 602-foot-high dam would increase the pool of water stored behind it, inundating several thousand feet of the McCloud, as well.

At the April 15 meeting, Saracino pressed the water commission to consider the prospect of raising Shasta, despite the state protections. "It’s unfortunate, because from a technical standpoint, in terms of adding flexibility and public benefits and water supply to the state of California, Shasta raise is probably one of the more viable projects," he said. "That’s why I’m just curious in exploring the options of not eliminating it at this point in the game."

Environmental groups, some of whom are working on alternate proposals for the money that could include things like groundwater cleanup or storage, reacted strongly to his remarks.

"That meeting went way over the line for us," said Eric Wesselman, executive director of Friends of the River, who co-authored the letter to Rules Committee Chairman and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon (D). "It wasn’t just an offhand remark; it wasn’t an oral brainstorming session. It was a persistent thread. It’s just a huge problem, especially for someone coming from a group like the Nature Conservancy, with an expressed willingness to repeal protections for rivers in order to allow new dams to destroy them. It was clear then that we didn’t have a voice for rivers or the environment on that commission."

Saracino worked for the Nature Conservancy as director of its California water program from 2005-11 and also has consulted for a wide swath of water industry participants, including the California Department of Water Resources, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

He had been scheduled for confirmation by the Senate Rules Committee on May 6, along with several other commissioners but was pulled from the consent agenda due to opposition and had been rescheduled for a hearing today.

He said he had already been planning not to seek reappointment in January, when his term was set to expire, because he might want to work as a consultant again on water issues. The commission is due to pass rules by the end of 2016 governing how the storage money will be spent. It also has a role overseeing implementation of the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires local agencies to self-regulate groundwater pumping. Saracino said both subject areas are within his expertise.

If he continued as a commissioner, "I would be precluded from doing most of what I know how to do," he said. As a former commissioner, Saracino will be barred from appearing before the commission for one year.

A geologist by training, Saracino was one of two members on the commission appointed for their knowledge of the environment, alongside Armando Quintero, executive director of the University of California’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute and a former National Park Service ranger. The other seven slots are reserved for experts in the "control, storage and beneficial use of water."

Saracino was originally named to the CWC as chairman in 2010 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who revived the 1950s-era commission in anticipation of a water bond that never came to the ballot. The eventual $7.5 billion bond that passed in 2014, Brown’s Proposition 1, contains $2.7 billion for storage, as well as $1.5 billion for watershed protection and restoration and lesser amounts for flood protection, water treatment, desalination and other uses.

Brown reappointed Saracino in 2014 but staggered each of the members’ terms so that they would expire gradually rather than all at once. As a result, Saracino’s term was set to expire at the end of 2015.

Wesselman said he was hoping Brown would appoint a more vocal environmental advocate to replace Saracino. Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, was not reappointed when her term expired earlier this year (Greenwire, March 12).

"There are some members of the commission that are extremely vocal advocates for surface storage and dams that have really limited public benefits or environmental benefits, let alone water supply benefits," Wesselman said. "There’s no one on the commission who is a counterpoint from that."

Saracino said he had provided a pragmatic viewpoint.

"There are certain factions of the environmental community that don’t believe that I’m as green as they are, certainly, and they’re probably correct," he said. "In my view, certain factions of the environmental community use misinformation and risk-avoidance techniques to prevent progress that could actually benefit the environment," he added, citing as an example the current political logjam over Brown’s proposal to build tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (Greenwire, May 1).

"I think it’s important for the governor to appoint an effective environmental representative to the commission, not a strident one," he said. "It’s easy to be strident when you don’t have to make collaborative decisions on behalf of the public, and the commission needs people that can constructively engage."