San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

One man made a difference

Stockton Record - August 28, 2005
By Michael Fitzgerald

One man made a difference
Stockton Record 8/28/05
By Michael Fitzgerald, staff writer
John Muir called the Valley "Eden."

It's an Eden from which man was never expelled. On the contrary. Here, as in so many places, man expelled the garden.

In the back of our minds, though, I think most people hope somebody out there is fighting to save what's left of the Valley's Eden; some scientist or legislator or John Muir of an ecologist who will somehow guide us back to balance with the natural world and save it "" and us.

And there are such people, although too few. Foremost among these in my mind is Bill Jennings, the DeltaKeeper.

After 11 years as DeltaKeeper, Jennings has announced his resignation following a philosophical split with DeltaKeeper's parent organization, Baykeeper.

It's their loss, the Delta's loss, and ours.

It's also an opportunity to appreciate what Jennings has done.

Bill Jennings has done more to save the Delta than CALFED, a huge bureaucracy into which taxpayers have poured billions and which turned out to be little more than a straw through which Southern California sucks ever more water from the north.

And Jennings never spent one tax dollar. He set up DeltaKeeper with money he won from environmental lawsuits. He ran it on grants. Often he paid out of his own pocket for everything from the office computer to the gravel in the parking lot.

And he got results. Impressive ones.

Patrolling in his boat, compiling readings from monitoring devices, scrutinizing discharge permits in the bowels of bureaucracies far out of the public eye, even crawling on his belly outside factories in the dead of night, Jennings and his small cadre of helpers caught hundreds of polluters and brought them into compliance with water quality laws.

Jennings and his team diagnosed the sickness in Stockton's waterways: Five Mile Slough, Smith Canal, Mormon Slough, the Calaveras River, French Camp Slough, the Deep Water Channel, made the law take notice, and now a regional board is developing cleanup plans.

He forced the polluting ports of Stockton and Sacramento to adopt much cleaner practices.

He played a key role in historically ending -- or partially ending -- the notorious "ag waiver," the Get Out of Jail Free Card that exempted Big Ag and other farmers from pollution laws.

He did all this by persuading reluctant regulatory agencies to do their job. When they would not, he used the courts. And he mixed right into the regulatory process, helping write new regulations as needed and fighting off attempts to gut clean water rules.

Jennings has his faults. He can be temperamental. He doesn't play well with others. He may be too quick to sue when compromise is possible. He talks over people's heads, and so fails to inspire, and his work never stops for Happy Hour, so his volunteers burn out.

Worst of all, to some, Jennings is profoundly out of step with our capitalist culture -- but that I admire about him.

In 150 years, our culture all but killed a river, the San Joaquin, that American Indians lived in balance with for 10,000. The Delta, to put it simply, is dying.

Gone are the sprawling blankets of bright wildflowers that Muir praised. Gone the grizzly bear. Gone are the herds of Tule elk, the shimmering salmon and the vast black clouds of waterfowl that once eclipsed the sun.

But what remains is worth fighting for, even as the Valley's booming population dumps ever more contaminants into the waterways and the insatiable giants of the south bellow for more to drink.

"I have no illusion that I stand at the fulcrum point and can change history," Jennings said of the Delta. "I'm just trying to protect the remnant of the biomass for a saner generation."

The biomass. That is a fancy term for the web of life. Jennings has devoted his heart and soul to saving it. His dedication and his results show he was not only an extraordinarily effective DeltaKeeper but, possibly, the Valley's sanest man. #

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