Friday, August 5, 2011

Tom Clark: Restore Hetch Hetchy loses a water buffalo

Tom Clark, who passed away on July 23, was Restore Hetch Hetchy’s most unlikely supporter. Or maybe not.

Lois Henry of the Bakersfield Californian was right when she said that it is hard to overstate Tom Clark’s influence on the water landscape in California. During his 14 years as its General Manager, he advanced the Kern County Water Agency and staunchly protected it from competition with urban and environmental interests.

Clark was instrumental in crafting the 1995 Monterey Agreement – a document that not only improved Kern’s dry year water delivery priority among State Water Project Contractors but also included the State ceding the undeveloped Kern Water Bank to local interests. As a result, the aquifer has been recharged in wet years with millions of acre-feet of water, helping to stabilize annual variations in supply and support a regional shift to highly profitable almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and citrus fruits. The Kern County Water Agency has indicated that they intend to name its (groundwater) Pioneer Project in Tom’s honor.

Environmental and fishing organizations that are committed to protecting the Bay-Delta and Central Valley rivers tend to view Tom with a bit less reverence. Many are still rankled that some of the water accumulated by the Kern Water Bank during the late 1990s was sold back to the public through the ill-fated Environmental Water Account in the early 21st century at a handsome profit, and legal action to return the bank to public control has been pursued.

And in person Tom was often provocative – he liked to accuse environmentalists of viewing farming as a sin. He once placed cotton bolls on a conference room table, asserting to the supposedly ignorant meeting participants that they were striped bass. But those who learned that Tom could take it as well as dish it out did so, and found that meetings with Tom could be fun, if also challenging.

Tom was used to working with large volumes of water. Kern County Water Agency has a contract with the State Water Project for 1,000,000 acre-feet – more than three times the supply that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission delivers to the city and Bay Area communities. And groundwater banks developed in Kern County since 1977 can hold 5,700,000 acre-feet, more than 15 times the volume of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. So when we showed Tom that we had done our homework – that adding a relatively simple intertie to other Tuolumne River reservoirs could ensure reliable delivery of surface water, it was not hard to convince him to join our National Advisory Board. (Former Metropolitan Water District GM Carl Boronkay joined us in December 2005 as well.)

Tom was clear he did not want to cause trouble - now who ever would have thought otherwise? He offered us advice from time to time, and there were a few key places where his phone calls were always readily answered. He simply said he was trying to help and that he thought restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was a worthy cause.

We will miss him.

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