Point Man on Western Water Is Stepping Down

Times Staff Writers

Bennett Raley, architect of the Bush administration’s Western water policies for the last three years, announced Wednesday he was leaving his job as assistant secretary of the Interior for water and science.

Raley oversaw federal policy during a particularly challenging time, when the demands of a fast-growing region collided with drought. Yet he insisted there was plenty of water in the West -- it was just a matter of shifting its uses through water marketing, an approach that many think represents the future of Western water management.

In California, Raley may be remembered best as the folksy but firm bureaucrat who finally made good on the federal government’s long-standing threat to put California on a water diet. He did it by forcing the state to agree to stop using more than its share of the Colorado River, freeing up water for other Western states.


A major disappointment of his tenure was a failure to resolve one of the West’s angriest contests for water: the struggle that pits the irrigation demands of farmers in the Klamath River basin along the California-Oregon border against the needs of Native Americans and other fishermen who rely on healthy downstream flows to sustain salmon and other fish.

“At least we got people back to where they are at least working with each other,” Raley said.

Commenting on his resignation, Raley, a Colorado water lawyer with two teenage daughters, said, “The primary reason is family.” He added: “But also I believe in jobs like this, you have a limited shelf life. You have to do your best and move on.”

His efforts at compromise gave short shrift to the environment, say conservationists who argue that he helped weaken fish and wildlife protections. And while Western agricultural interests stand to profit handsomely from the farm-to-city water transfers that Raley championed, he angered one of the West’s biggest irrigation districts, in California’s Imperial Valley, by questioning its water use.

“I’m sorry I’ve made some people unhappy, but I sleep well at night,” said Raley, who grew up in a Colorado ranching family and never gave up his cowboy boots.

He said he planned to resume his law practice and that he had no political aspirations. He also said he doubted his departure would signal a shift in the administration’s water policies.


Raley’s resignation is effective Friday. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton named Tom Weimer, principal deputy under Raley, as acting assistant secretary, but did not say who would permanently fill the position.

“Bennett has been the linchpin of this administration’s Western water policy, tackling some of the most contentious issues facing the region during a prolonged period of drought,” Norton said.

“As the lead federal negotiator on the 2003 Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement, he helped to bring certainty and predictability to the long-term water supplies of Colorado River basin states,” she added. “The agreement resolved issues that had divided water users in the lower Colorado River basin for more than 70 years and led to the largest transfer of water from agricultural use to urban use in U.S. history.”

The complicated deal calls for California to phase out its use of Colorado River surplus deliveries and for the giant Imperial Irrigation District to sell some of its Colorado water to San Diego.

To forge the agreement, Raley cajoled, imposed cutbacks and questioned Imperial’s water use. No agency got all that it wanted, and numerous prickly details are still being resolved -- including a controversial plan to fallow farmland in the Imperial Valley. A plan to protect the inland Salton Sea from rising salinity levels also has yet to be finalized.

Stella Mendoza, a member of Imperial’s governing board, said she wished Raley good luck, but that she was not sorry to see him go.

“I always felt he was not a friend of” the Imperial Irrigation District, she said. “The best interests of the valley were not on his agenda. We were threatened with the taking of our water and we were forced to act prematurely. I felt at times the board was being intimidated.”

Raley’s cowboy boots and folksy ways never fooled her, she added. “He tried to convince us he was one of us.”

Still, getting California to agree to stop taking more than its share of the river was widely seen as a historic breakthrough.

Ronald R. Gastelum, president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which long relied on the surplus Colorado water, called Raley “pragmatic” and a “problem solver” who “also came to terms with the fact that there are a lot of changes in California, and that it is not going to be business as usual.”

Brenda Southwick, managing counsel of the California Farm Bureau, said Raley was straightforward. “Overall, the thing we most appreciated about him was that he was a straight shooter. You pretty much knew where he stood.”

While conservationists prefer water marketing to new dams, they faulted Raley for dragging his feet on environmental protections and too closely catering to the needs of the federal government’s biggest water customer, Western agriculture.

“Bennett Raley has been the architect of the return of the water policies of the 1940s and 1950s,” said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He’s worked very hard to protect the interests of a small set of highly subsidized agricultural interests and ignored the needs of the modern West. He’s been tremendously anti-environment.”

Nelson cited the Klamath Basin in Northern California, where more than 30,000 salmon perished in 2002 after river flows were reduced to increase irrigation deliveries. He also pointed to what he called the Interior Department’s “glacial movement” in restoration of the Trinity River, also in Northern California.

He further criticized Raley for not backing funding for wastewater reclamation projects to benefit urban areas.

“He’s also not been very interested in solving the water supply needs for urban areas,” Nelson said.