Kate Poole: Moving Water in California: God, Gravity, and Lawyers

This second in a three-part series of profiles written especially for Maven’s Notebook by Emily DeMarco that takes a look at the Delta and California water through the eyes of those who are on the front lines of the debate. This week, we view the western waterscape through the eyes of Kate Poole with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Next week, we’ll learn more about Chuck Bonham, Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. We began last week with Melinda Terry, Manager of the North Delta Water Agency; you can find Melinda Terry’s profile by clicking here.

Kate PooleThrough the red and white sandstone canyons of northwest Colorado flow two rivers, the Green and the Yampa. Their confluence is the heart of Dinosaur National Monument, and it was on their banks that Kate Poole, water attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), had her first exposure to both water management in the West and its hand maiden: controversy.

A Michigan native, Poole spent a summer after college working as a seasonal park ranger—a job she highly recommends—at the Monument. And she learned about the Echo Park Dam controversy that launched an era of environmental conservation.

Back in the 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed building a dam in Echo Park, just downstream of the confluence, for purposes of hydroelectric power, flood control, and water storage. The proposal generated a nationwide uproar that pitted a nascent environmental movement against a powerful federal agency. The conservationists prevailed, inspiring wildlife enthusiasts like Poole to this day.

She went back home to study at the University of Michigan School of Law, but the images she had seen and the stories she had heard from her summer at the Monument stayed with her. She took a class taught by legend of the legal academy Joe Sax, who turned her on to the legal aspects of water management in the West, and her path became clearer under her feet.

In 2004, Poole joined NRDC as a water attorney and waded into the litigation surrounding the San Joaquin River and the operation of Friant Dam. Although the river had supported large runs of salmon in the past, the alteration of flows by the dam had made long stretches of the river run dry, and the salmon had long since stopped coming back. Sixteen years earlier, NRDC had filed suit against the Department of Interior and a group of California water users, arguing that a small section of the California Fish and Game Code, which guarantees water to fisheries, applied to the dam. It would be another two years before both sides finally reached a settlement. The case that Poole helped shepherd to a close had begun the same year she worked at Dinosaur..

san joaquin river
San Joaquin River at Sand Slough

Last November, fisheries biologists began moving adult fall-run Chinook salmon upstream and releasing them into the river below Friant Dam to see if they would spawn there. They did, and for that reason, Poole points to this litigation as one of the most “tangible and satisfying” that she has worked on in her career.  And, she says, “it’s an important reminder that it sometimes takes the dogged commitment of many people over multiple generations to restore the awesome beauty of the West—but it can be done.”

Since 2006, Poole has worked on a number of other controversial, lengthy environmental cases for NRDC, including a series of suits related to biological opinions protecting delta smelt and salmon in the Bay-Delta region.

Still, criticizing environmental litigation is like shooting fi. . . well, let’s say it’s flaws are well-understood. Legislators, not lawyers, should make California water policy. Litigation is costly. It is slow. There has to be a better way. Poole hears this refrain often, and she takes the point. But she refuses to let you stop there. “Litigation by itself isn’t enough to drive water policy in the state, but it has been a necessary part,” she said.

Necessary because the cases she’s worked on, she says, have shined a spotlight on pressing environmental problems, in the San Joaquin River and in the Bay-Delta, and because they have begun to lay the foundation for fundamental—not incremental—change in how water is moved and managed throughout California. “Litigation can help initiate this type of fundamental change that other types of advocacy cannot,” she notes.

Recently, however, Poole has spent less of her time in the courtroom and more of it recording her thoughts in a blog for NRDC and putting together informational materials for the public about the complex issues that define water management in the state. She is part of a small army of people in California trying to get the rest of us to understand that our water comes from somewhere besides the tap.

Getting this message to resonate and stick is not easy, but neither was the litigation before it, and Poole points to her colleagues in the water world and in the larger environmental community, and to her family and friends as people she looks to for support and guidance. This past summer Poole took her two children—ages 10 and 12—backpacking in the Trinity-Alps. Their excited cries of “I caught a fish! I caught a fish!” warned away wildlife for miles. She points to these types of memorable experiences to explain what motivates her as an environmental lawyer. And she finds herself sustained by “the magic of the natural world and the miracle of salmon swimming a thousand miles upstream to their natal birth sites.” She wants to make sure that those salmon runs will be around and thriving for her kids and grandkids to see.

But she’s worried that won’t happen without a paradigm shift in how water is managed in California. She points out that the state is coming off a whole century of “dam and divert,” but that “we’ve hit that peak point . . . and we’ve overexploited our river systems.” Pool argues that efficiency improvements, recycling, and restoring natural flows are difficult but necessary steps on the path towards a sustainable water supply and healthy ecosystems.

To achieve this shift, Poole and NRDC have been involved in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) process by “writing comments, sitting at the table, and trying to make it a better plan.” She points out that the plan needs more consistent water operations that provide more flow through the Delta at key times, that it needs to be part of a more comprehensive water management strategy for California that invests in local, sustainable supplies, and that it needs to be done in a way that is affordable and has public support. For now, Poole says, these three areas remain key challenges for the BDCP.

In April, NRDC released an analysis that Poole co-authored identifying five urban water agencies in southern California with plans to reduce or eliminate their use of water imported from the Bay-Delta and Colorado River systems in favor of sustainable, local water supplies. Those changes give Poole hope. “These agencies prove that we can have reliable water supplies, healthy rivers and robust fisheries at the same time and at an affordable cost. Water agencies throughout the state can do the same if customers demand it. Knowing where your water supply comes from today and in the future is critical to ensuring sustainable water for all Californians.”

  • You can read Kate Poole’s blog at the NRDC Switchboard by clicking here.

Emily DeMarco is pursuing a master of environmental science and management at the Bren School at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently specializing in water resources management and environmental communication.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email