Politics & Government

Obama's environmental adviser has California roots

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's choice as a top environmental adviser knows the Central Valley's air and water problems better than most.

As incoming Council on Environmental Quality chair, Nancy Sutley will try to coordinate federal environmental policy. She will referee fights between competing agencies, such as the agency delivering California irrigation water and the one protecting the state's endangered species.

The California conflicts are politically and technically vexing, for which Sutley's background seems uniquely suited.

"She's used to action; she's used to being in the thick of things," Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said Thursday "She's a very strong environmentalist ... but she's able to work for agencies that have to deliver a product."

Currently the deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Sutley is also a board member of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The agency's seemingly unquenchable thirst on behalf of 17 million customers has angered some Valley residents, but the agency also retains a big stake in the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Sutley, in turn, could sometimes be critical of Central Valley irrigation projects and the federal Bureau of Reclamation that runs them.

A member of the California State Water Resources Control Board between 2003 and 2005, Sutley wrestled with myriad Valley water conflicts. In March 2005, for instance, the board loosened strict discharge rules so the city of Manteca wouldn't have to build a new $75 million water treatment plant.

Some policies were very significant, like a January 2004 order that Sutley and her colleagues termed "a veritable sea change" in the regulation of runoff from agricultural land.

And, as an adviser to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis between 1999 and 2003, the graduate of Cornell University and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government confronted the region's energy crisis and air pollution woes.

"Because she is a soft-spoken, modest person, some politicians underestimate her authority and abilities," said Warren Chabot, the incoming chief executive officer of the California League of Conservation Voters. "But when she briefs top policy leaders, her comprehensive knowledge and judgment quickly becomes apparent,"

Democratic sources leaked Sutley's pending nomination this week, though it hasn't yet been made official.

The Council on Environmental Quality chairmanship is a job where clout can ebb and flow, depending on the president's inclinations, the power grabs of other agencies and the individual's willingness to knock bureaucratic heads. Stature is not guaranteed. The office has only a modest $3 million annual budget and a staff of barely two dozen.

The Bush administration's current CEQ chair, Jim Connaughton, is a successful lawyer. On Capitol Hill, though, he has not been seen as a particularly muscular political player.

"The position can be whatever the person wants it to be," said Quinn, who formerly worked with Sutley as deputy general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Connaughton, for instance, conveyed in 2006 a Bush administration policy to speed up repair of vulnerable Central Valley levees, but he did not provide additional federal money to do so. One of his Clinton administration predecessors helped push for creation of the Giant Sequoia National Monument in the southern Sierra Nevada.

When federal agencies squabble, a potent Council on Environmental Quality chair can mediate their differences. The council, for instance, once negotiated a dispute over whether a big environmental study should precede long-term renewal of irrigation contracts for east-side farmers from Chowchilla to the Tehachipi Mountains.