PASSINGS: Thomas J. Graff

Thomas J. Graff, shown in 1986, worked with the Environmental Defense Fund.
(James Pease)

Thomas J. Graff

Lawyer shaped state water policy

Thomas J. Graff, 65, a lawyer and environmentalist who helped influence California water policy as regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund for 37 years, died Thursday at an Oakland hospital of complications from thyroid cancer.

Graff, of Oakland, opened the California office of the Environmental Defense Fund in 1971 and helped it become one of the most powerful voices on environmental issues such as climate change, oceans and water policy.

He was born Jan. 20, 1944, in Honduras to German Jews who fled Nazi Germany. He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and received a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from Harvard and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. At the Environmental Defense Fund, Graff was a champion of using market forces to improve the environment by pushing for water marketing in California, and for plans to cap and trade sulfur dioxide emissions in the Eastern states to combat acid rain.

He was also a driving force behind the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the 1992 law that reworked one of California’s biggest water projects.

Graff was a leader in the political fights against construction of a Peripheral Canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. When the Sierra Club was debating whether to accept a compromise to allow construction of the canal, Graff argued that the canal would let San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California to take too much water out of the estuary.

He sued the East Bay Municipal Utility District to block plans to tap into the American River, starting a 17-year legal battle over the health of the river and the Oakland-based district’s contract rights to water. The utility eventually gave up its plans to build an intake on the American River and reached an agreement with environmentalists and Sacramento interests to move the intake downstream to the Sacramento River.

-- mcclatchy tribune regional news