Phil Isenberg is a former state lawmaker, mayor of Sacramento and big-time lobbyist — someone who’s been in a lot of political street fights but whose latest battle may be his biggest.
The 50-year veteran of California politics heads the Delta Stewardship Council and he is now the guy with his hand on the future of the state’s water system.
Isenberg, 74, says the question of what to do with California’s water in the Delta “has been debated for 55 years and that nothing stops Californians from arguing about water.” The inference is that the arguments might go on forever.
But Isenberg is more optimistic than ever that the state is closer to a resolution of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the project to move more water from Northern California through the Sacramento-San Joaquin river Delta to the south.
And that’s good news.
The goal of the BDCP is to protect the fragile Delta’s ecosystem while reliably delivering water supplies to Californians.
Federal and state agencies and various interests have been working together to develop the latest plan since 2006, although the idea of building huge waterworks in or through the Delta to move water has been around for generations.
Initial elements include the construction of two side-by-side tunnels and water intake facilities, a massive project that would be phased in over the next several years.
Thirty-five miles in length, the tunnels would protect the freshwater supply from natural disaster and enable the diversion of water to farms and cities while protecting wildlife, authorities believe. Delta water serves 25 million Californians and some three million acres of farmland and wildlife advocates.
Not surprisingly, the Delta project is intensely controversial, pitting water interests against environmentalists and north against south. Isenberg is at the center of the dispute.
The Delta Stewardship Council was set up in 2009 under legislation approved by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Council has authority to oversee the BDCP process, render judgments concerning stakeholders’ appeals of the plan and offer recommendations.
State and federal agencies, specifically the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U. S, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service have the responsibility of seeing that the plan satisfies endangered species acts and they can veto those proposals that violate them.
Isenberg’s professorial, bespectacled visage conceals the savvy of a political fighter familiar with the Capitol’s wars and state government, a person well suited to oversee the resolution of the conflicts over water. He learned his politics well, tutored by the master himself, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
A self-described “grumpy old water guy” Isenberg was appointed to the seven-person council in 2010 by Schwarzenegger and elected chair by his colleagues.
He earlier chaired the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force and the California Marine Life Protection Act Blue Ribbon Task Force. The recommendations of the Delta Vision Task Force provided much of the structure of the major Delta water policy changes that were adopted by the legislature and signed into law in 2009.
Isenberg’s father was a parole and corrections official and his mother was an educator. The family moved to Sacramento from the Midwest when he was very young and he counts the city as his home.
After completing his undergraduate degree at Sacramento State University he went to UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School and then to Brown’s San Francisco law firm. Brown’s tenure as Assembly speaker, nearly 15 years, was the longest in the history of the house.
“A force of nature”, he says of Brown. “Early in my stay there, he stopped by my desk and said ‘Come with me as I make some calls. An hour and nine calls later, some to courtrooms, some to other law offices, it ended with my head swimming. He was unbelievable!”
In 1969, Isenberg returned to Sacramento to open his own law practice and two years later won a seat on the Sacramento City Council. His political ascension continued with his election as Mayor in 1975 and he continued in that office for the next seven years.
In 1982, Isenberg was elected to the Legislature where he stayed for 14 years while representing portions of Sacramento, Contra Costa and San Joaquin Counties, a district containing major portions of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
His subject areas included land-use planning, and water and resource issues, as well as state budget and state and local financial relations. He chaired the Assembly Judiciary Committee from 1989 to 1996, was assistant speaker from 1986 to 1988.
Isenberg quickly cemented a reputation as a savvy negotiator and one not afraid to reach across the aisle. With Republican Assemblyman Bill Baker, he engineered a creative use of state funds to help pay for water conservation efforts by the City of Los Angeles in exchange for increased protection of the environment at Mono Lake.
In 1992, he achieved a notable success when he and Republican Sen. Frank Hill collaborated on an alternative budget that led to an eventual settlement of a 63-day state budget standoff, the longest in state history up to then.
Views of Isenberg by different observers carry a common theme, that of a dogged digger for the truth who exacts the same kind of tenacity and thoroughness from those around him.
Tim Gage was the chief consultant and staff director of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee during Isenberg’s time there and they often worked together.
“Phil wasn’t a classic get-along, go along legislator. He challenged colleagues and staff and it meant that we needed to be on our toes. He would challenge the authors of pilot bills being presented to the committee to offer evaluations of quantitative criteria that would support the bills. And that would challenge us to craft language that would indicate whether the pilot was successful. He also had the capacity to look at issues in which common ground was difficult to see and recognize ways in which they could be massaged or tweaked to find that common ground. He never shrank from doing the hard work. If he could be criticized for anything, it might be that he was frustrated by others inability to do what he was able to do. That was sometimes perceived as arrogance.”
John Griffing who was an economics consultant to the Senate Budget Committee remembers Isenberg from its joint meetings with its State Assembly counterpart as a “consummate problem solver who was smart, energetic and creative. He was a very interesting guy who would convene side meetings in an effort to get at the answers. At times, he irritated others by including people who reported to them but he got things done. The state had terrible budget issues during that time because of severe defense industry cutbacks and answers were important.”
Those budgetary experience and problem solving skills were utilized in 1998 by Governor-elect Gray Davis who selected Isenberg as part of a three-person team to prepare his budget. He played the same role in 2001 and 2002. He later chaired the transition committees for Speaker-elect Cruz Bustamante in 1996 and Treasurer-elect Phil Angelides in 1998
Mort Saltzman, now retired from his post as Deputy Managing Editor for the Sacramento Bee, has known Isenberg since they met at Fort Ord while in basic training.
As mayor, Saltzman said, “Phil was clearly one of the most dynamic and strong leaders in an otherwise leaderless city. He set a benchmark for mayors and knew how to establish business and political coalitions in order to get things done. That will be one of his legacies. He’s a remarkable man and has done a great deal for Sacramento and the state of California.”
But, he adds mischievously, “he was one of the worst soldiers in the history of Fort Ord. That’s been documented.”
Will California’s latest water battle be Isenberg’s last hurrah?
“What the public must realize is that this is a long process,” Isenberg says.
“Policy making in the United States is like a barroom brawl,” Isenberg notes, citing James Q. Wilson’s “Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It.”
“Anybody can join in, the combatants fight all comers and sometimes change sides, no referee is in charge, and the fight lasts not for a fixed number of rounds but indefinitely or until everybody drops from exhaustion.”
Ed’s Note: CORRECTS attribution of quote in final graf to “Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It,” by James Q. Wilson.