Thomas Graff dies; helped transform U.S. water policy with environmental group

Mr. Graff first worked out of a fraternity attic.
Mr. Graff first worked out of a fraternity attic. (Courtesy Of Environmental Defens - Courtesy Of Courtesy Of Environm)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Monday, November 16, 2009

Thomas J. Graff, 65, who helped transform the nation's water policy as the longtime regional office director in California for the Environmental Defense Fund, died Nov. 12 at a hospital in Oakland after battling thyroid cancer for more than two years.

Mr. Graff founded the advocacy group's California office in 1971 in the attic of a University of California at Berkeley fraternity house. He changed the way federal and state governments managed water in the West by providing market incentives for farmers and other water rights holders to conserve resources and direct them toward urban areas and environmental purposes for a profit.

Marcia Aronoff, the Environmental Defense Fund's senior vice president for programs, said Mr. Graff was responsible "for putting together the first major change in water law and federal policy in modern times."

The idea of upending the principle of "use it or lose it" when it came to water rights was radical when Mr. Graff suggested it in the 1980s, but he persuaded lawmakers in Washington and Sacramento to let farmers save water and then sell it to supply urban consumers and critical ecosystems.

Mr. Graff helped codify these incentives through the 1990 Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Rights Settlement Act and the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

"Water policy had been a socialized system based entirely on subsidies and political considerations," said Tom Jensen, who got to know Mr. Graff while serving as the chief water lawyer for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on water and power under Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Mr. Graff's ability to influence the legislative process -- he was dubbed "the Godfather" by California Lawyer magazine -- stemmed from his impressive analytical ability, array of contacts and listening skills, and a willingness to use tough legal and public relations tactics when needed.

"He was subtle and strategic. He could play at every level of the game," Jensen said. "He could be a spotlight-grabbing advocate or he could be utterly invisible, insidious and influential."

Mr. Graff was known for writing concise, one- or two-paragraph missives that crystallized key policy questions. He once ghostwrote a letter for a member of Congress that ultimately prodded the Interior Department to release water from Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam in order to allow the Colorado River to flow more freely through the Grand Canyon.

Thomas Jacob Graff was born Jan. 20, 1944, in Honduras to German Jews who had fled Nazi Germany. He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and graduated from Harvard College in 1965 and from Harvard Law School in 1967.

He attended the London School of Economics, was a legislative assistant for New York Mayor John V. Lindsay and an associate at a law firm in San Francisco before opening the defense fund's California office. Defense fund head Fred Krupp once said Mr. Graff joined the organization because of the affinity the young lawyer felt "for an organization whose informal motto back then was 'sue the bastards.' "

His marriage to Joan Messing Graff ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 31 years, Sharona Barzilay of Oakland; a daughter from the first marriage, Samantha Graff of Oakland; two children from his second marriage, Rebecca Graff of Cambridge, Mass., and Benjamin Graff of San Jose, Calif.; a sister; and two grandsons.

A fan of the Oakland Athletics, Mr. Graff liked to say that not only had he managed to tutor his children in how to score baseball games with precision but that this training proved to be invaluable when his daughter Rebecca chose to pursue a doctorate in statistics at Harvard.

A number of prominent politicians mourned Mr. Graff's death, including Bradley, who said the lawyer's "good sense and judgment guided" the federal 1992 water law. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), speaking at the signing ceremony Thursday for a California water reform law, lamented the fact that Mr. Graff was not in the audience.

"The reason why I wanted to mention him is because he was a great environmentalist," Schwarzenegger said, "someone that was very heavily working for 30 years on preservation, conservation and protecting the environment, protecting the [Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta] and who was very instrumental to get us where we are here today."

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