As one of the most prominent organizations lobbying on environmental and land use issues in Sacramento, the Planning and Conservation League has led campaigns on everything from global warming to public health to local dam removal. Its history includes the promotion of such landmark measures as the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Coastal Act, and Prop 12, the 2000 Parks Bond measure.
Now in its 46th year, PCL is welcoming new leadership. Just this month, veteran attorney and environmental activist Bruce Reznik was installed as the new executive director for PCL and its sister organization, the PCL Foundation. Reznik arrives in Sacramento after serving for more than ten years as the executive director of Coastkeeper, a leading clean water advocacy group in the San Diego Region. Reznik spoke with CP&DR about his goals for PCL and his approach to the state's most pressing land use issues.
What are your immediate and medium-term goals for PCL?
I'm getting to know the organization and the staff and undertaking a strategic planning process with the board. At this point we're still trying to figure out exactly that question of where we want to get engaged.
First and foremost, we've had a very accomplished water program, and that's something that's heavily in my background. I expect that to continue to be a big part of our work plan. That includes work that we're doing on the Delta and on statewide water policy relating to water transfers, dam removals, promotion water recycling, indirect potable re-use. We were one of the first groups to propose smaller alternatives for the Delta – a tunnel rather that the canal – and that's been picked up at least as an option by the governor's office. I'd also like to broaden some of our focus on conservation and efficiency. I can imagine a a loading order where conservation and efficiency should be at the top and then harvesting and reclamation are down the line.
Having spent a good amount of time in the environmental world, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that it's very hard to separate issues. But I recognize that, counter to that, it's very easy for organizations to take on too many things and be a mile wide and inch deep. If you're working on water policy you have to understand the linkage between land use planning and how that affects water quality. So I'd like to get engaged in broader energy policy, but we have to figure out if we have the resources and staff to do that. we have to make sure we're not spreading ourselves too thin. A little bit thin, I think, is good; too thin is not so good.
Would that depend on internal reorganization, or more of defining the goals really clearly?
It really is both.
PCL hasn't, I don't think, had a great strategic plan for a while. It was undertaking a strategic planning process at the same time they were doing a search for a new executive director. What it means is that I'm coming in and we don't yet have those specific outcomes that we want to achieve. Part of my priority is figuring out what we have the staffing for and how we can reorganize to be more efficient.
PCL, like most groups, has seen its staff shrink and has taken the same hits that everyone else in the nonprofit world has taken. So I don't think it's as simple as a reorganization; we have to rebuild now that the economy is bouncing back a little bit. We have to bring in some additional resources and expertise and lay out a plan. Funders want to know what you want to get accomplished.
How does PCL hope to capitalize on SB 375, and what challenges does SB 375 pose for the state as a whole?
I want to look at how SB 375 actually hits on the ground and how we do a better job of integrating our transportation and land use planning and even economic development and job creation.
SB 375 was not without controversy. Within PCL and within the entire environmental community there are folks who wanted it stronger and people who think it went too far. My personal take on 375, which is not necessarily the take of PCL, is that 375 was transformative in saying, "OK, we're going to start thinking about these things in a creative fashion." That seems very common sense, but frankly it was not often done in the past. We have to credit SB 375 for forcing folks to look at things differently, to connect the dots, and realize that all these issues are connected.
But, the devil is really in the details. There aren't real teeth in SB 375. You can tell agencies to do a better job coordinating, but they're separate agencies. SCS's don't force agencies to actually integrate the policy. Now that SB 375 is the law of the land, it's up to PCL and other groups to make sure that it is in fact the transformative law that we hope it will be.
So far the only one I've reviewed in terms of SCS is the San Diego plan. I don't think it hits the mark at all. It's kind of funny because I know the San Diego plan is heralded as first out of the gate and a good model. (See lead story, Page 1.)
Here's the difficulty with getting any new law off the ground: you've got this interesting balancing game. Everyone wants 375 to succeed. (Sen. Darrel) Steinberg and the Legislature and the environmental groups want to see the momentum and see the first one be successful. The problem is you can't lower the bar so much that anything looks like success. Frankly, that's my take on the San Diego plan.
It's a lot of paperwork, it looks glossy, it looks nice, but in the end there's nothing in that plan that shows to me that they get what SB 375 is trying to do: promoting job growth, linking communities, investing in the urban core, not promoting more sprawl.
It is incumbent now that we have 375 not to pat ourselves on the back. In fact. I think our workload is even greater. Now we have the opportunity to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm not trying to be critical. I think it's transformative, but only if we make it work.
How do you build those coalitions and what role will PCL play?
Working with the local groups is one of my other areas of focus at PCL. I want to reintegrate the "L" part of PCL – the "league" part – which is working more closely and collaboratively with local groups on the ground. I come from a locally based grassroots organization that is based on a lot of locals being connected. I think PCL has that opportunity to work with those groups to make sure that the promise of 375 is realized in the actual Regional Transportation Plans and Sustainable Communities Strategies.
How hard will that be given that there are countless groups across the state, whereas SB 375 sees the state at a macro level?
Coalition-building and community empowerment are always very, very difficult. It's a time-consuming, grueling slog through the mud. But I also think it's crucial.
One of my complaints about the environmental community is that we're often disconnected and at odds. Many are really focused on the grassroots, community aspects. Then we have regional or national groups that work more within the power structure and halls of government and all those policy arenas.
We're never going to be as strong as we can, and should, be until we're actually communicating, collaborating, connecting so that what's happening at the community level is also happening in the halls of power, like at the State Legislature and then at all these agencies like SANDAG and CARB and the Water Board.
I have no illusions about how difficult that is; it's not like there aren't already groups working in this arena. But because of PCL's long history and its origins as a collaborative effort, I think we're well positioned to be a leader in trying to connect those different aspects of the environmental community. Grassroots can only do so much of our laws are getting gutted in Sacramento and DC.
Speaking of laws that some people would like to gut, how will you approach CEQA?
I'm a big CEQA fan. I'm not a strict constructionist in anything. I certainly think laws should be evaluated to figure out what works well, what can be strengthened, and what are some of the unintended consequences and intended consequences. I don't have a problem looking at CEQA and figuring out where we should be. That being said, I certainly don't think we should be folding up the tent and looking at wholesale weakening of CEQA.
We should get back to looking at the original goals of CEQA: informed decision-making and making sure the communities have a meaningful say in decisions that impact them. We should be looking at CEQA to see where those aims are being met and where they are not. If we are going to reform CEQA, it should be to those goals.
I know everybody talks about "CEQA is a job-killer." I don't agree with that. CEQA has played a critical role in the way we have developed the state. Even with CEQA a lot of really dumb projects get built. I think we should step back and think about what our vision for California is.
I know everyone loves to talk about the "triple-bottom line": ecology, economy, equity, or whatever you want to call it. My issue with the triple-bottom line, even though I like those aims, when people often talk about it as tension between those three areas that need to be somehow addressed. I don't buy that. I think that what's good for the economy 100% of the time is good for the environment and communities and vice-versa.
For instance, in California we use 140 gallons of water per day; much of the world uses 40-50. If we get really serious we're going to be putting people to work installing rainwater harvesting, installing greywater systems and smart meters, and changing landscapes and putting people back to work. And we're not going to be relying on one massive pipeline that sucks up 5% of the state's energy that's just going to be more and more expensive.
Speaking more personally, a lot of folks say we can certainly look to reform CEQA in ways that will promote good projects. That sounds really good. Certainly, we all like solar, we all like rainwater harvesting—so we can waive CEQA, right? My problem with that is that you either believe in those goals of informed decision-making or you don't. I think we set ourselves up if we are the police of all that is good, as if "we know that solar is good, so we can waive CEQA for solar." Are we that smart to know everything in advance? Do we know if exempting industrial solar, or desalination, from CEQA review is the right way to go?
Should we do whatever we can to promote distributed generation of energy and local sustainable water supply strategies? Absolutely. I think we need to figure out how to do that without undermining those aims of CEQA.
What's your take on the $40 billion question of high speed rail?
That is one of our bills—the Lowenthal bill--which is about reforming the HSR Authority. In general, because we haven't gone through a lot of our strategic planning, I'm sort of speaking for myself: I am a fan of high speed rail. I think it is important for California. I think it can offer a tremendous amount of benefits for the state, environmentally and for job creation and all that. But the devil's in the details. So far we haven't seen the High Speed Rail Authority working all that effectively. Our bill is looking to reform the authority to get more expertise on and less political appointments. Other folks want to see it absorbed into Caltrans, and we're still figuring out those fixes.
We have to figure out how the governance of that project is going to be more accountable. Obviously the devil's in the details of how it goes and where it goes. We have to be above the fray and push for what's the best project for the environment. Whatever you do, you're not going to make everyone happy. There's going to be impacts. I want to be the group basing our decisions on sound science and sound policy principles, pushing it where it should go best.
The other thing is the balance of how high speed rail meshes with more localized transit, particularly in our urban cores. We still need to figure out how compatible those goals are. Is high speed rail going to suck all the energy out of the room and suck energy away from more urban-core transit strategies? Or are there opportunities to leverage resources working on projects that could serve both needs.
In previous years PCL has pushed a lot of bond measures. Do you want to pursue that strategy as well?
That's something we need to look at. I think the bond measures were critically important for the time that they were passed. Gerry Meral, who was leading PCL for most, if not all of the bond measures, deserves tremendous accolades for getting those pushed through for continuing to raise consciousness.
I don't know that that's something that will be a major area of focus. I have mixed feelings about the initiative system as a whole. I'm a little more representative democracy kind of guy. I'm a big believer of campaign finance reform and holding our elected officials accountable. I think it makes it very challenging when you try to merge a representative democracy with a direct democracy. You elect folks, but often their hands get tied. I'd like to see us focusing more on accountability of elected officials.
That being said, the reason that initiatives have been passed is we don't always get that accountability and we are left with the system we have. Sometimes that's the only thing that's left to actually push the policy, like the Coastal Act and some of the parks and water bonds that PCL has been so involved in. I'd like to focus more on the legislature and push good legislation.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of 9mphoto.com.