The most dangerous man in the Delta

In casting a wide investigative net, independent journalist snares hypocrisies of two California governors

Dan Bacher stands at the Clarksburg boat launch in the north Delta.

Dan Bacher stands at the Clarksburg boat launch in the north Delta.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

“I live in a very dark place,” Dan Bacher says, glancing into sunrays glinting off the Sacramento River. “This problem of corporate influence, the domination of big money in Sacramento, is just growing beyond control.”

Bacher’s been shining a light into dark corners for decades as an independent journalist. For the last eight years, much of his work has cast a critical glow on Gov. Jerry Brown’s environmental policies.

Just as Brown’s career has been pestered by the bumblebee attacks of columnist Dan Walters, so too has he been dogged by Bacher, who writes sharply from a progressive viewpoint. The difference between the two Dans goes beyond their profiles: While Walters has always enjoyed a mainstream megaphone for his political bashing—writing for The Sacramento Union, The Sacramento Bee and now for CALmatters—Bacher’s follow-the-money critiques of Brown have been anchored mainly in the pages of an outdoor magazine called The Fish Sniffer.

Now, as Brown approaches his final months in office, arguably moving regulatory mountains and legislative earth to slice two massive tunnels through the Delta, it’s Bacher who might tag a sharp asterisk to the governor’s legacy. Bacher’s reporting on the estuary’s fate, along with his exposes on expanded offshore drilling under Brown, are being published on an array of lefty news sites, including Daily Kos, Alternet, CounterPunch and LA Progressive.

Last November, The New Yorker ran its own story questioning Brown’s mantle as a climate defender, highlighting his administration’s ongoing dealings with Big Oil and fracking operations. Those are relationships Bacher has been documenting for years. And the fish sniffer says he isn’t finished sniffing out the money trail he believes unravels “the myth of Jerry Brown, green warrior.”

It’s a hot afternoon in the Delta. Bacher peers at a levee through the window of a barbecue house. Its earthen wall is in the proposed path of California WaterFix, better known as the twin tunnels.

Bacher’s been writing about the project since it was reworked as a new version of Brown’s failed 1982 attempt to build an open-air “peripheral canal” to move Delta water to Southern California cities and agribusinesses. While Bacher’s journalism is achieved the old-fashioned way—attending legislative hearings, state commission meetings and scientific forums—he also likes to engage in some tongue-in-cheek trolling of Brown on social media.

“California is the nation’s ’green leader,’ and Jerry Brown is the ’ultimate climate leader,’” Bacher posted on Facebook when the American Lung Association released its latest report grading our air quality. “That’s why four out of five urban areas with the most polluted air in the nation are in California, the nation’s third biggest oil producer.”

Another time, Bacher posted an archival photograph of Brown walking with a smile next to cult leader and mass murderer Jim Jones, adding the one-word caption, “Memories.”

Driving Bacher’s environmental coverage, which has led to him hanging out with Woody Harrelson and talking forest protection with Merle Haggard, is an obsession with conserving endangered fisheries. A Sacramento native, Bacher got his start in journalism in 1983 for a bilingual newspaper in San Jose called El Observador. He soon ended up at a rod-and-reel magazine called The Fish Sniffer. It was launched by the late Hal Bonslett, who urged Bacher to cover water concerns shared by sportsmen, tribal councils and environmental activists.

In 2006, Bacher became co-owner of The Fish Sniffer. Around the same time, state officials renewed a push to channel huge volumes of Delta water south, despite the National Marine Fisheries Service warning of extinction dangers for chinook salmon and Delta smelt.

Trying to understand how this could happen, Bacher began reporting on the trend of special interest groups getting associates appointed to regulatory panels and state commissions under the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. This focus allowed Bacher to break a big story, one he says mainstream journalists didn’t want to touch with a 10-foot fishing pole:

Bacher learned that the chair of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group charged with designating “marine protected areas” off California’s coast, was Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association. That’s the primary lobbying association for Chevron, Exxon, Shell and Valero.

“Then I started investigating the other people on the panel,” Bacher says. “They were almost all corporate operatives.”

Campaign finance reporting is another specialty of Bacher, one he says is vital to understanding the twin tunnels saga. Bacher has documented hundreds of thousands of dollars pumped into the campaign for the $7 billion Proposition 1 water bond, which state officials claim can help mitigate environmental damage from the tunnels, among other purposes.

Mega-contributors to that initiative included Southern California orchard tycoon Stewart Resnick, along with the California Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers Service Association and California Cotton Alliance. For Bacher, Brown’s decision to side with such big-money agribusinesses, similar to his ties to the oil industry, pollute his environmental record.

“We thought Jerry Brown would be better than Schwarzenegger, and he wasn’t,” Bacher says. “I think it’s finally time for the mainstream media to stop clinging to this false narrative around him.”

And if it won’t, Bacher will be around to do it himself.