Tom Clark - a "water buffalo" for restoration (plus a binkie story)

Tom Clark - A Hero in Kern County ...

and another "Water Buffalo" who supported restoration of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley


Tom Clark was another "water buffalo" who supported restoration of Hetch Hetchy. (A month ago, we posted "A Good Dam for a Good Man", about Carl Boronkay, a General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, who also supported restoration.)

It's impossible to overstate the importance of getting support from water industry experts, especially leaders like Clark and Boronkay. They understand better than most that restoration can be accomplished without jeopardizing reliable water supplies for San Francisco or any other community. Their support works well to refute opponents who, too easily and too often, confuse their "water source" with a single reservoir.

As General Manager of Kern County Water Agency, Tom Clark was a fierce and often irreverent advocate for exporting water from the Delta into the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct His views were not popular among the environmental and fishing groups fighting to limit the amount of water extracted from the Delta.

Like so many of us, however, Tom loved Yosemite. So shortly after he retired, he joined the Advisory Board of Restore Hetch Hetchy. Tom said humbly and simply that he hoped he might be able to help negotiate a deal. It's too bad he never had the chance, because he was one heckuva negotiator.

Sadly Tom passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer. His memorial service, held at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, was filled with water industry colleagues and as well as his obviously very close family. It seemed like everybody in the room told their own Tom Clark story - each one funnier or more outrageous than the last.

Several stories involved negotiating the controversial Monterey Agreement in which Tom acquired local control of the Kern Water Bank from the State. In doing so, Clark became a local hero. Many outside of Kern County, however, objected to both the process and the outcome of the closed door meetings.

Clark's role in negotiating the Monterey Accord is recounted in "The Dreamt Land: Chasing water and dust across the West (Mark Arax, 2019). The book includes an amusing vignette that illustrates Clark all too well - that during the meetings he passed out pacifiers to his water agency adversaries when they "whined"!


Imagine being an important head of a urban water agency and you've lost leverage to the agricultural interests in a high stakes negotiation. You're at the table, you're unhappy and you say so. Clark then calls you a whiner and hands you a binkie.

The Monterey Accord and its cession of the Kern Water Bank from the State to local interests is an important story. Here's a short summary:

·     In 1991, the fifth year of a drought, the State Water Project had very little water to deliver. The SWP, operating under a system of "urban preference", allocated a small amount of water to its urban customers and none to its farmers.

·     The Kern County Water Agency, by far the SWP's largest agricultural customer was apoplectic. On top of getting no water, they still had to pay a hefty fixed cost for the original construction of the project (essentially a mortgage payment for their share of the Oroville Dam, the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant and the California Aqueduct). Kern threatened to sue.

·     Threatened by the lawsuit, in 1995 the State Water Project Contractors and the California Department of Water Resources held a set of closed door meetings in Monterey. At these meetings, Clark negotiated for the State to cede the Kern Water Bank, a massive aquifer conveniently located adjacent to the California Aqueduct, to private interests in Kern County.

·     As part of his negotiating tactics or maybe just for fun, Clark handed out pacifiers to his counterparts when he perceived they were whining.

·     The Kern Water Bank was handed over to its principal investors. Most prominent among them are Stuart and Lynda Resnick, California's largest "farmers" and owners of the Wonderful Company. Wonderful's website boasts that it is "making the world a better place, one brand at a time". Wonderful also has many detractors. Mother Jones, for example, wrote a scathing article criticizing Wonderful for using more water than all homes in Los Angeles combined.

·     In some ways, the Kern Water Bank is the poster child of how a water bank should work. The bank is recharged in wet years and can be drawn down in dry ones, providing additional reliability. The bank allows Wonderful and other farming companies to invest in valuable orchard crops with limited risk. Many, if not most, however, argue that these benefits should be in public hands and more evenly distributed.

Image: The Wonderful Company


Restore Hetch Hetchy will continue to work with water system experts to show that Hetch Hetchy Valley can be restored without sacrificing water supply reliability. Not a drop need be lost.

And if we are able to find ourselves in a strong negotiating position, we won't be handing out binkies. It's been done.