The ‘reasonable’ environmentalist

When John Merz talks about the Sacramento River, people listen

A RIVER RUNS LOW The water level in the Sacramento River is low right now. The state isn’t sure how much water will be needed this year, so it’s not being released from dam storage. Merz doesn’t like the idea of water being a commodity and is troubled by the selling of water south by some farmers and water users’ groups. This water transfer trend will likely become more prevalent as growth persists and drought inevitably returns. “[Selling water] gives me heartburn. I don’t like that kind of stuff. State law requires that water be used for beneficial purposes. [Those with water rights] have a right to use it, but they have a responsibility to use it to the benefit of society.”

A RIVER RUNS LOW The water level in the Sacramento River is low right now. The state isn’t sure how much water will be needed this year, so it’s not being released from dam storage. Merz doesn’t like the idea of water being a commodity and is troubled by the selling of water south by some farmers and water users’ groups. This water transfer trend will likely become more prevalent as growth persists and drought inevitably returns. “[Selling water] gives me heartburn. I don’t like that kind of stuff. State law requires that water be used for beneficial purposes. [Those with water rights] have a right to use it, but they have a responsibility to use it to the benefit of society.”

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Conservation history:
John Merz’s favorite conservationist is Aldo Leopold, of Sand County Almanac fame. Another conservationist with a similar-sounding name, John Muir, compared the Sacramento River to tropical jungles. He once left a visit with John and Annie Bidwell by shoving off into the river and riding it all the way to Sacramento.

Get John Merz out on the river on a sunny but brisk autumn morning, and he seems sublimely happy.

Merz is director of the nonprofit Sacramento River Preservation Trust. He’s been land-bound for the last month or so, busy with paperwork, meetings and public-comment deadlines. But today he’s in his element, clutching $35 binoculars from Radio Shack and taking in the day with both childlike fascination and scientific awareness.

“The last time I was here I saw a white deer—an albino,” Merz says. “I love the cloud formation today, too.” Endangered swallows have settled on the vertical riverbank: “No one knows what’s involved there, but they seem to know where to go.” A group of circling buzzards is as noteworthy to Merz as the majestic great blue heron. Snowcapped Lassen Peak is off in the distance.

“Is this pretty or what?” Merz grins. He waves, “Hey, buddy,” at an egret, and notices an osprey nest. “I love osprey—it’s like, ‘Give me a platform and I’ll build a nest.'”

Even water swirling around a snag captivates Merz’s attention: “I find stuff like that totally fascinating. It’s really just an appreciation of all those forces that are in play. We may not be able to make sense of it, but there is sense to it.”

The Sacramento is not just a river, it’s an ecosystem—a universe in and of itself.

Spying an island covered with brush, Merz says it’s “like a Huck Finn experience. You’d go in, and you wouldn’t even know where you were.”

The gray-bearded, fleece-vested environmentalist has been leading the river trust as director and chairman of the board since its formation. Its mission is to protect the river and preserve its natural habitats, and Merz has been at it since 1984. He is not a scientist, although he has probably read and digested more about the river than the employees of the government agencies assigned to oversee it. He is passionate yet calm, and his non-confrontational approach in pleading the river’s case has gone a long way toward changing the way policymakers think about the river they have long sought to tame.

“He’s a walking encyclopedia on the river, and we’re lucky to have him,” says Merz’s longtime friend Kelly Meagher, a founding member of the trust who still serves on its board. From wetlands to land use to the annual two-day State of the Sacramento River Conference featuring top bureaucrats and consultants, when there’s a community issue that concerns the environment, Merz is there.

“One of his greatest strengths is he knows the system,” Meagher says. And unlike the protest-sign-toting, red-faced environmentalists that policymakers alternately despise or ignore, Merz knows his stuff and how best to present it. “He won’t go away. There he is at the meeting again. He’s asking intelligent questions. He’s remembering what you said a year ago.”

The Sacramento is California’s largest river. Springing from the base of Mt. Shasta in Siskiyou County, it cuts a 382-mile path through the valley before veering west to drain into the San Francisco Bay.

The Sacramento River and its sister, the San Joaquin, and their many tributaries are responsible for carving out the state’s Central Valley, one of the richest agricultural lands in the world. It’s from the Sacramento River that the state’s urban settlements get much of their water. “It’s kind of a lost world—it’s our own rainforest,” Merz says. “It’s just as productive, in terms of biomass.

“The river has many faces,” Merz continues. An aerial atlas shows the natural—and manmade—twists and bends of the Sacramento. Above Redding, it’s more mountain stream than roaring rapids. Around Red Bluff, it goes from bedrock to alluvial stream, which is why it becomes more prone to erosion.

Viewed from above, the water’s path looks more snake than river. This natural “meandering” is how the river is intended to move, but development and agriculture don’t always want to cooperate with Mother Nature’s intent.

The North Valley’s agricultural landscape would be much different if the river had been left to its natural cycle, or hydrograph: high flow in the winter and low flow in the summertime that have given the Sacramento River the nickname “Nile of the West.” Now, a surge of water in April and May feeds high-value crops like almonds, rather than row crops. Growers “cleared out riparian habitat and crept to the river’s side.”

When Shasta Dam was completed in 1944, its construction boss was quoted in Time magazine as saying, “That meant we had the river licked. Pinned down, shoulders right on the mat. Hell, that’s what we came up here for.”

It was frustration with a government system that would rather establish control over the river than adapt to its temperament that led to the creation of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust. The trust’s role was to educate the public, review environmental ramifications of proposed river projects and lobby for river-protecting legislation.

The last straw, for Merz, came in 1983, when, pushed by politically connected landowners, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and State Reclamation Board wanted to “rip-rap every bend between here and Red Bluff.”

Rip-rap projects are expensive government ventures undertaken in the name of “bank protection.” Rip-rapping, intended to keep eroded material from floating downstream and compromising the flood control system, strips the banks of foliage and replaces it with rock, turning the powerful, wild river into a heavily managed canal. This new, naked riverside changes the habitat for plants, fish and other animals. For example, with no gravel being washed into the river, salmon can’t spawn.

The trust sued the State Reclamation Board over the rip-rap project, and a court found that the negative declaration stating that the project—originally proposed in the 1960s—had no impact on the environment should not have been issued. “It stopped the project dead in the water,” Merz says, triumphantly.

Rip-rap looks decidedly unnatural. From his seat in the boat, Merz averts his eyes when he sees the rocks stacked along the bank and the artificial channel that formed as a result. “It’s like night and day,” he says. In some places, the rip-rap hasn’t been able to hold the river in check. “This is an example of an investment being made to keep the river in place and the river’s basically saying, ‘I don’t think so.'”

Tom Kraemer, a founding member of the trust who now works for the state Department of Water Resources out of Red Bluff, calls Merz a “peacemaker” who has stuck with the river cause even though he could have easily secured a higher-paying government job or consulting gigs.

“He’s a person of great integrity,” says Kraemer, who as part of his master’s work at Chico State wrote about the meanderbelt concept—the idea that the government should buy up enough land on either side of the river to push development and agriculture back and allow the river to shift back and forth naturally. Merz read an article about Kraemer’s research and called him. “It’s his sense of commitment [that leads Merz] to make personal sacrifices,” Kraemer says.

Merz, 54, was born in Texas and grew up in a part of Fresno that is now “wall-to-wall suburbs.” His family’s back yard faced an open canal, with grape and plum orchards. It was his playground. Back then, California was “a huge state with not a lot of people in it.”

In the 1960s, he moved to the Bay Area. The hippie movement was in full swing, but, Merz said, “I just couldn’t get that loose.” He was immersed in his studies and serving as vice president of the Associated Students at San Jose State when the Vietnam War came calling. “I resisted. I turned in my draft card,” he says. (Conservationist John Muir walked into Canada rather than compromise his values and fight in the Civil War.)

Merz was there when students buried a new car on the San Jose State campus to protest over-consumption. He took an environmental-studies course, read some books and came to realize that human beings do not know “the ultimate boundaries of what our impacts might be.”

In the early 1970s, Merz dropped out of school to work and built up a business arranging charter flights to Europe. It was the venture of setting up an Associated Students travel service at Chico State that brought him north.

“I took one look at this creek running through campus and said this is the place for me.” He went back to college and graduated from Chico State with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

MEET THE PRESS In 1996 Merz (center) helped organize the first Creeks of Chico Conference.

Photo By Sara Sipes

Merz took a position with the United Way before being hired at the Butte Environmental Council and going through every job on the roster, including general manager—"a labor of love,” especially during the lean Reagan recession years, when recycling fell off the nation’s radar.

It was through BEC that Merz met his wife, Carole Ross, after she “had acquired a fairly significant amount of parking tickets” and was referred by the court to community service there. The couple raised three children: two daughters, Amber and Monica, in their 20s and a son, Luke, who is a sophomore at Chico High School.

“Without his wife, Carole, John couldn’t do the things he does,” Meagher says. “This is what he wants to do, and his family’s always supported him in it.”

Meagher met Merz through BEC in 1980, when the organization was operating out of a warehouse on Cherry Street and had “the big three” environmentalists in town—Merz, Steve Evans and Mike McGinnis—taking turns at getting paid, because BEC couldn’t afford to pay them all.

“There didn’t seem to be much of a future in the agency—we didn’t have any money,” Meagher explains. When the 1981 election made for a progressive majority on the City Council, however, BEC got the support it needed to add advocacy to its recycling goals. Evans went on to become the conservation director for Sacramento-based Friends of the River, and McGinnis, formerly Chico’s mayor, is director of the Association for Retarded Citizens.

Evans, still a close friend of the Merz family, believes Merz stuck it out in Chico because “trying to protect the place where you live” is important to him. “He has very strong roots and is an amazing family man.” When the kids were little, he was known to bring them along on river-business-related “field trips.”

Evans is impressed with what Merz and the trust are able to do, especially with an annual budget of only $70,000, compared to Friends of the Rivers’ less modest $800,000.

Merz is still plugging away at the trust. His salary is a modest $30,000—this year. It fluctuates depending on the trust’s budget, and this is the most he’s ever made; last year it was $24,000. His wife works for Valley Oak Children’s Services. Merz drives a Chevy Nova and rents his house.

“Our kids know how to work, and they get exposed pretty early on,” Merz says. It’s not that the couple wanted to raise little conservationists; just socially conscious, happy kids. “Part of it is just cross your fingers.”

Meagher is struck by how, as environmentalists come and go, Merz has never sold out or given up. “I think it’s because of his ethics. He believes there needs to be a citizens’ activist.

“I don’t have the patience anymore. But he’s as stubborn as a Scotsman and so determined,” Meagher says. “If anyone had told me in 1984 of the changes that would be made to the river and the system, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I don’t know how John doesn’t get burned out. It amazes me that he can be so idealistic and believe in the system and continue to bang his head against the wall.

“He thinks of the ramifications of his words,” Meagher says. “He has tremendous patience. … We tried to have a quota on the number of meetings he could go to in a month, but he broke it in, like, two weeks.”

Evans says, “I know that he personally gets disappointed when people he knows make bad decisions about the environment, but he never is one to hold a grudge or rant and rave about things.”

Merz says some activists who see poor science and politics trumping environmental concerns have lost faith in the process, “which typically leads to anger. People become so disheartened that they’re lashing out.

“There’s a time to be in the streets, but that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work that’s got to be done,” Merz says. “Environmental work is paperwork.”

His Flume Street office is piled high with papers, and his desk is a flurry of Post-it notes. Walk in the door and past the mismatched couch, posters of California’s water system and cinderblock shelves, and you’ll find Merz’s office. Talking with him, one gets the idea he’s read all of the documents on those shelves—more than once.

Merz’s modus operandi is to establish relationships early on, especially with the agencies that will end up making and implementing the decisions when it comes to wildlife or land use. State and federal workers have a lot of authority, but everything they oversee is held in trust for the public, and “you have to call them on that.”

He does his homework, he writes lots of letters and he shows up at meetings—often months or years before an issue comes to a head.

“I’ve seen him show up at meetings just to gain long perspective and insight,” says Rich Wallace, an almond grower and retired school district spokesman who came to Merz with his frustration about the $34 million Rock Creek flood control project that would protect pricey new homes along Keefer Slough while flooding the land of the old-timers who built in reasonable areas. “John has been a staple of this community for a long, long time, and I think his words are very well respected. The completeness of his thinking is to the community’s benefit. His decision-making is based on a higher calling, on what’s good for the community.”

While Merz’s interest was broader than the Rock Creek neighborhood’s—the project will impact the entire river, not just the creek’s neighbors—he says it was immediately obvious that the proposal was a bad idea.

Chico City Manager Tom Lando remembers Merz’s involvement in many planning and capital projects—from parks to roads to the suggestion that the city move to hybrid vehicles. Every time, “what he’s bringing to the table are reasoned questions. John is obviously working toward the betterment of the community.”

Merz also sat through years of Site Selection Committee and school board meetings when the Chico Unified School District was planning on building a new high school, which ended up being slated for environmentally sensitive land.

CUSD Trustee Rick Anderson says board members were intrigued when Merz came forward with well-researched new ideas on how and where the school could be built.

“It was clear to me from John Merz’s presentation to the school board on Canyon View High School that he had done his homework and understood the issues,” Anderson says. “He was very respectful of the process and our board members. I felt that he had valid concerns.”

“Doing his homework” is something Merz is known for.

Burt Bundy, who works on the management plan under the Sacramento River Conservation Area created by the state Legislature in 1986, has known Merz since Bundy was on the Board of Supervisors in Tehama County. Bundy, a farmer and former water association president, tends toward the conservative politically.

“It used to be he was rated as an aggressive environmentalist,” Bundy said. “But he and I have modified our stances over the years.

“They listen to John because he knows what he’s talking about,” Bundy said, and “John will listen to reason. … I don’t think he’s out there to obstruct things.”

Some environmentalists, Bundy says, won’t compromise, and that’s not the approach that led to the policy changes that have taken place to protect the river. “It looks at a balance along the river. You need to have habitat along the river, but you need to have flood control, too.”

RAVING ON THE RIVER While a recent boat ride along the Sacramento River, courtesy of Rich Wallace, left, and Larry Rauen, took Merz through Tehama County, his favorite place on the river is Indian Fisheries, the park near where West Sacramento Avenue ends. The river actually used to run through where the park now stands.

Photo By Tom Angel

Merz figures that if he can put out a good argument, and do so articulately, he’ll be heard.

“I try to be factual when I talk,” he explains. “The thing that keeps me doing what I do is I care—the passion.” But people, especially bureaucrats, can be turned off by an “energy wave” of testimony. “I’ve tried to keep that accusatory tone out of my voice.

“Humans are social beings. It’s hard to demonize people when you see them once a month,” he says. “You end up building bridges whether you’re aware of it or not. You’re basically planting seeds all the time. You don’t always know what’s going to come out of it, but what’s really important is the consistency of the message.”

If he loses, Merz says, “you live to fight a different day.”

Sometimes, he gets litigious.

The trust has sued when environmental-review processes seemed lax and when endangered salmon species were threatened.

“There’s my trust hat, and then there’s my environmentalist hat,” he says. “I sued the city several times, just on my own,” he adds, referring to two housing developments, Mission Ranch, which lacked a mitigation monitoring plan, and Highland Park, which didn’t allow for enough park space.

“You try not to go there, because suing is, to overplay the phrase, a court of last resort,” he says. When he or the trust does go that route, “part of it’s physical stuff—what’s actually going to happen—and part of it’s process.” One “trick” Merz learned early on is that the environment has a stronger voice if several entities rally to the cause. “You didn’t do it independently. You spread the cost and made it more politically potent.”

It bothers Merz when decisions about the environment are made not out of scientific knowledge but because of political pressure. It’s usually the higher-ups who shift left or right according to who’s in political power, but the climate trickles down to agency staff.

“I have my own set of heroes, and they’re the ones who stand up when they know something is wrong,” he says. “I know people who have lost their jobs because of that, and that takes a special kind of courage.”

Merz, for all his efforts to be the voice of environmental reason in Chico, may be stepping into a political minefield. He’s been tapped several times as a likely and logical candidate for Chico City Council. But Merz only recently decided when the time will be right: in the election two years from now.

With the shift of the council to a progressive majority, “a lot of things that have been on hold have just started to re-emerge.

“We have to give the General Plan teeth,” he says, referring to the document that was revised in the mid-1990s and “got lost” when the council leaned right. “A lot of opportunities were missed,” particularly in the community-design and ag-protection elements.

The same things that make people—liberal and conservative—feel drawn to Chico are the same things that need to be protected.

“I think some people think that we don’t really have to worry about the environment because it’s very resilient,” he says. “But that assumes that we play a passive role, and we don’t play a passive role.” To believe that, for example, growth is inevitable in Chico is “shirking” the responsibility of planning well. “We can only grow so fast and be able to handle it.”

Merz has some experience in political roles: In 1983, he was appointed to the Chico Parks and Playgrounds Commission and later the Chico Area Recreation District. (His only time away from Chico was a brief move to Arcata in the early 1980s to run a recycling project there.) He’s applied to be nominated to the city Planning Commision.

He says Chico needs to think about such issues as, “What do our neighborhoods look like? How to we relate to one another as citizens? What it takes to make this a livable community.”

During a riverside lunch at Scotty’s Boat Landing, where everyone looks up and says “John!” as if he’s Norm from Cheers, Merz spies a woman whom he and his wife know socially and through volunteer work. But somehow she’s never become a member of the trust. “I’m hitting up all my friends,” he tells her. “Wanna write a check? Gotta strike while the iron is hot.”

Later, he confesses: “I’m usually not so forward. I actually don’t bug my friends as much as I probably should.

“Getting members is always a trick,” he says. There are 1,000 now, with a renewal rate of 70 to 85 percent. “The trust is just one of many important projects.

“Not being grant-reliant lets us be more flexible in what we do. It allows us to be more independent in terms of setting our own agenda.”

Since the rip-rap threat that spawned the trust in 1984, Merz says, “we’ve turned a lot of corners.”

“When we started we were by ourselves. That’s long gone,” and “the agencies are much more engaged.”

The legislators and government agencies aren’t ignoring river issues anymore. There is a comprehensive plan prompted by the floods of 1997—one of those hundred-year storms that seem to come along every six or seven years. As a result, a hydrologic model will be developed to figure out what the river does and why. The river has been extensively mapped, a scientist is studying predictive modeling—"it’s an art, not a science"—and the Geographic Information System (GIS) has been used to differentiate among different layers of soil and predict stable places to build infrastructure such as bridges and what’s subject to erosion. In the past, Merz says, taxpayers spent millions to rip-rap areas that were geologically unlikely to erode anyway.

“We’re getting a better handle on how a river like the Sacramento works,” Merz says. The river will never be truly “wild and free"—the Shasta Dam and the Red Bluff Diversion Dam are permanent fixtures the state’s water users are dependent on.

Even so, Merz says fondly, “it has a lot of wildness still in it. Even the creeks have a lot of freedom to them.”

When Merz looks back to 15 years ago, when the government didn’t put much stock in the concept of meandering, he sees how far the movement has come. “It’s not called the ‘m’ word anymore,” he says. “'Meanderbelt’ is now an understood physical issue that has value in every planning effort along the river.

“From this point on, the most important things are in the realm of education,” he says, and there’s still a ways to go.

“We have a lot more we need to learn,” Merz says. People think of the river as “an ‘it,’ if you will. It’s a place where something happens to it. The river isn’t just this body of water flowing downhill. It’s a whole lot of other things.

“We’re supposedly the ones with the brains, but that gets challenged every day,” he says. “I think, literally, heaven is on earth, and we have to realize that and make it whatever it can be. Pay attention to what’s here. … I personally believe that everyone inherently knows what the right thing to do is. I always believe that, if given enough information, people will make the right choices. My job is to lay that out in such a way that it will have an impact.” Still, he said, “I’ve been disappointed over and over again.”

His cure: "Go out and sit on the riverbank for a while."