Visalian in state Cabinet sees opportunity in water crisis
Sunday, Mar. 22, 2009
By E.J. Schultz / Bee Capitol Bureau
SACRAMENTO -- As leader of the state Natural Resources Agency, Visalia rancher Mike Chrisman has a delicate balancing act.
He must cater to fishermen, farmers and environmentalists -- all while managing a $6.1 billion budget and 17,000 employees in departments overseeing California's water, wildlife, fish, forests and parks.
In his sixth year on the job, Chrisman is pulling it off for the most part, said a leading environmentalist.
"We may disagree with some decisions sometimes. We also applaud other decisions, but I think overall he's a fair guy," said Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
His job is getting tougher, however, and some of his critics are growing louder. Budget cuts have chipped away at the agency's ability to enforce environmental rules. And the drought and deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are stretching state water operations.
Chrisman, the third-longest serving secretary in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Cabinet, sees opportunity in the water crisis.
Along with the governor, he's pushing for a multibillion-dollar water bond to help pay for new dams, more conservation and improvements in the delta. Previous proposals have gone nowhere, but Chrisman is hopeful a deal can be reached soon to put a measure on the 2010 ballot.
"We're in as good a place now as we've been in 25 years. We have got to get this done," he said in an interview last week. He led a panel of five Cabinet secretaries who in January endorsed the bond proposal while also calling for sweeping changes to the delta, the state's water hub.
The state by 2011 should begin work on a multibillion-dollar canal to move water around the delta to cities and farms in the Valley and Southern California, the panel's "Delta Vision" report recommended. Farmers on the west side of the Valley support the canal as a way to bring more certainty to their water supplies. But some environmentalists and delta residents fear a water grab.
"Secretary Chrisman is working solely on behalf of big agribusiness," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director for Restore the Delta, a coalition of delta farmers, fishermen and environmentalists. "People are forgetting the economy here [in the delta] is equal to or greater than the west side of the San Joaquin Valley."
Chrisman says the canal can be built without legislative approval and paid for by water users. But he vowed to work with all parties -- and to preserve delta water rights of Northern California users.
"Would we go it alone? Would we just go ahead and do it? Of course we wouldn't," he said. "Is it going to be easy? No. But it's very doable."
Chrisman, 64, a Republican, was first exposed to complicated water policy as a teenager. He accompanied his father, Jack, to Washington to lobby for flood control dams after their family home in Visalia flooded.
Jack Chrisman went on to serve on the state water commission under Gov. Pat Brown and helped push for the State Water Project, the largest state-built water system in the United States.
Mike Chrisman got his start in government in the 1980s when he served as chief of staff to then-Assembly Member Bill Jones. He went on to work in the state Department of Food and Agriculture and was a deputy secretary at the resources agency from 1991 to 1994.
In 1997, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Chrisman as the first-ever Valley member of the California Fish and Game Commission, where he earned respect from environmentalists for helping to improve fisheries and protect sea otters and other marine wildlife.
"I'm very tied to the land and that conservation ethic comes with that," said Chrisman, an avid fly fisherman who grew up backpacking in the Sierras.
Chrisman, a former Tulare County Farm Bureau president, owns rangeland and a walnut farm in Visalia. He has commuted home nearly every weekend since taking the Cabinet post in November 2003.
Early in his tenure, he helped implement the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The grant-giving organization seeks to safeguard the environment and economy of 25 million acres in the state's eastern mountain range.
Chrisman also has won praise for creating a public-private partnership to implement the state's Marine Life Protection Act. The 1999 law calls for protection of the state's coastline from overfishing and other threats.
The act "wasn't moving forward and I think [Chrisman] figured out a way to move it forward," said Notthoff, the environmentalist.
But some groups say the effort and others like it are threatened by a shortage of game wardens to enforce the rules.
The state employs about 220 wardens, or about one for every 173,000 residents -- many fewer than Oregon or Washington, said Bob Orange, a warden and past president of the California Fish and Game Wardens Association. "We certainly feel that we've been neglected," he said. "There's no way we can enforce these laws unless you hire more officers."
State budget cuts led to a 30% decline in warden staffing from 1999 to 2007, according to a report two years ago by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
Chrisman called the situation a "very high priority for us ... making sure we have an adequate work force."
The Department of Fish and Game's enforcement budget was increased by $6 million for 2009-10 to $68.1 million, including $3 million for 15 new wardens, according to state finance officials.
But that's still short of what is needed to enforce coastal fishing restrictions, said Bob Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Association of California. He worries that dishonest fishermen will break the rules, meaning the habitat will never improve for honest anglers.
He called the Marine Life Protection Act a "hollow shell that is hurting fishermen."
The warden shortage is one reason why the state Senate Rules Committee recently postponed a confirmation vote on Fish and Game director Donald Koch, who was appointed by Schwarzenegger last April and serves under Chrisman.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has yet to schedule a confirmation vote. The senator "has serious concerns we haven't worked out yet," said Alicia Trost, a Senate spokeswoman.
Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, who has pushed for more wardens, said Chrisman "has been constricted by the realities of the budget, I think, more than anything else."
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