Tom Graff: A practical environmental visionary

November 23, 2009
By Professor David Zilberman, Agricultural and Resource Economics

As the world is preparing for a big environmental summit in Copenhagen, knowing that an agreement is very unlikely, it’s become apparent how difficult it is to reach an environmental agreement that can stick and change the course of history. People that can bring about such agreement are really rare, and last week we lost one of them, Tom Graff.

Tom was an environmental lawyer who opened the west coast office of the Environmental Defense.

Water is the most precious resource of the west. The west was built by the diversion of water from wild lands to mine gold, build cities, and irrigate farmland. Some were cheering these activities that “make the desert bloom,” but in the meantime many regions, like Owens Valley, were ravaged. The legal establishment provided tools, like the prior appropriation doctrine, that enabled these diversions. This legal doctrine allowed diversions as long as the water provides “beneficial use,” was based on the principles of “first in time, first in right,” and “use it or lose it,” and restricted trading in water.
One strategy that has been pursued by many environmental groups to stop water diversion was a continuous protest and fight against any new project and any proposed reform. Sometimes it worked, but as demand for development increased, more water was diverted. Tom was quite good as a protestor and fighter. I witnessed it once in a conference in Oregon when he told Al Gore the inconvenient truth that the Clinton Administration, at least in 1995, was more talk than action when it came to environmental waters in the west. But, Tom’s strategy had another dimension: he supported efforts to encourage more efficient uses of water that were diverted away from agriculture. This increased efficiency of water use would reduce the demand for new diversion and actually would provide opportunities to return water from cities and industry to the environment.

Tom realized that market forces could be crucial to pursue a strategy of enhancing water use efficiency and transferring water for environmental services. He realized that markets could work for everybody, including the environment. So, he made EDF. He was an initiator and broker in water trading between various agencies, for example between Imperial Water District that had large excesses of water and Metropolitan Water District, that had an insatiable appetite for water. His major accomplishment was in 1991 when water contracts between the federal government, the Central Valley Project, and farmers in California were supposed to be renewed. Tom was a behind the scenes architect of an agreement that resulted in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act that recognized the diversion of water for environmental purposes to be a “beneficial use,” diverted 10% of the Central Valley Project water to such environmental activities and allowed farmers to sell some of the water to the cities as well as to environmental entities. I provided some of the calculations that helped Tom in this endeavor. The key point that he realized was that if farmers are allowed to sell some of the water rights they will adopt modern irrigation technologies, so that their output wouldn’t decline, make some extra money from selling the water to pay for the conservation, and at the same time, the availability of water will quench the thirst of the cities. This Act stabilized the water situation over the last 15 years and provided a blueprint for future agreements, where market forces and creative trade can be used to increase the efficiency of existing water resources and reduce the need for diversion.

I learned a lot from speaking with Tom and I enjoyed his humor and his warmth. In 1990, I was involved in a debate regarding a proposition called “Big Green” that aimed to eliminate pesticide use from California agriculture. While I am in favor of regulation of pesticide to attain safety and economic prosperity, banning pesticides seems to me an extreme act that would lead to nowhere and likely increase the price of food and harm the poor. I made some statement along these lines and boy, was I attacked! Tom invited me to lunch one day and he said first, don’t be afraid, say what you think and secondly, we have to use much less pesticide, but sometimes we don’t have a better alternative. He also told me that that while sometimes he gets mad at California farmers and their production practices, he would never forget that these are the people that prepare our food.

California water problems and for sure pesticide issues pale in their complexity and significance to climate change. But, we can address Kyoto if we will have more Tom Graffs. Leaders that can recognize that the other party also holds a reasonable point of view and that will know that in order to gain something, you have to give up something in exchange. Tom will be missed.

[Please see "CNR Mourns the Loss of a Great Environmentalist and Friend"]