Estuary News

June 2021

The Coast Whisperer

Sam Schuchat, outgoing chief of the California State Coastal Conservancy, is perhaps one of the most dapper state officials I’ve ever met. He often wears an elegant hat with a brim and band, no Giants bill cap or REI wooly for the leader of a powerful state agency, one that has done more to ensure that the coast is accessible to all Californians than any other. Of course, Schuchat would say he had a lot of help — partners everywhere, lots of folks willing to give any project involving the Conservancy their best. Schuchat is quite the politician: he likes to work the room, shake hands, bend ears, and make deals. I can’t say I know him personally. But I can say I’ve seen him everywhere I’ve gone in my long career writing about the Estuary — at conference podiums, at levee breaches, in deep hallway conversations behind the public agency water cooler, at plantings for native species and vigils for endangered ones. This guy gets around.

After two decades at the helm of the Conservancy, Schuchat retires on June 25. His replacement is yet to be named. But the emotional and political intelligence he brought to the job will be missed (Estuary News invites your comments at the end of this post). In the coming years, Schuchat says he hopes to spend more time riding his bike and playing music, not to mention travelling post shelter-in-place. But he also expects to keep his finger on the pulse of the California coast and to delve more deeply into national climate change work.

ARO: What are three things you hope every Californian knows about the Coastal Conservancy?

SCHUCHAT: I hope they understand that all of the incredible blessings of open space and nature we have here in California, we have because people made them happen. And that the Coastal Conservancy, within its jurisdiction, has been a big part of that. The second thing I hope they understand is that as a government agency, we’re an example of the good government can do, and that they pay for it, they are where the money comes from. The third thing I hope they understand is that we all have to share this natural inheritance with each other. I’m thinking about that because [my last] Coastal Conservancy board meeting is going to be particularly contentious, and a lot of the contention is coming from people who basically don’t want to share what they have. Fighting against that is a big part of what we do.

ARO: Can you give an example?

SCHUCHAT: Well, we’ve been funding what’s called a public works plan in Malibu, which is planning and eventually constructing a bunch of access ways to the beach. Naturally, the people who get to live on the beach in Malibu don’t like that. And they’re gonna show up to our meeting. They want their private beach, and that’s not unusual.

ARO: So what have you found works in terms of talking to those kinds of people?

SCHUCHAT: Sometimes nothing works. And honestly, if people are opposed to the project, they’re opposed to the project, and you’re not going to convince them that it’s okay. A lot of what we do, when it’s restoration, or access, starts with planning, stakeholder involvement, and consensus building. The point is to wind up with a project that is a ‘yes’ for everybody, but that doesn’t always happen.

ARO: In California, the coast is somehow something we do share. It’s part of the California dream, thanks in part to the Conservancy and the Coastal Commission. Do you talk about that dream differently now than you did when you first started your job 20 years ago?

SCHUCHAT: Well, there’s a couple of things I’ve learned along the way. We talk a lot now about restoration, but at the beginning of my career we talked about conservation. That meant keeping things the way they’ve always been. But it’s pretty clear now in the era of climate change, that we can’t do that. And also that we can’t roll the clock back to some pristine past state of nature that may never have really existed. Before European settlement, native tribes had all kinds of huge impacts on the landscape. The COVID year has also taught us just how important it is for people to be able to get outside, and I hope that I hope it sticks.

Photo: Sierra Garcia

ARO: So is the coast still part of the California dream, then?

SCHUCHAT: The coast is absolutely still part of the part of the California dream. It is beloved. But another thing that’s changed since the beginning of my career is that, when we used to talk about access to the coast, we were thinking mostly in terms of physical access, making sure there was a trail and parking. But about 10 years ago, we really started thinking about the non-tangible barriers to coastal access, including racism, not seeing yourself in the coastal picture, and not having the means to get to the coast. We’ve come up with various new approaches to remove these non-tangible barriers as best we can, but the battle for physical access continues. It’s not just about the last 100 feet anymore, about getting from the road to the beach; it’s about other things as well.

ARO: If you look at the last two decades, what is one thing you consider a big success and what was the fish that got away?

SCHUCHAT: One of my favorite projects was the removal of San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River, which was the biggest dam removal in the state to date. We’ll keep that record until the dams on the Klamath come down, which happily they’re going to soon. But we have another obsolete dam in Ventura County, Matilija Dam, and I really wanted to get that sucker down, too.

ARO: Why did you want to get it down?

SCHUCHAT: Once you’ve taken one dam down, your appetite is whetted. But it’s also big and ugly, and taking it down would be an awesome triple play. It’s good recreationally; it will restore the steelhead run; and it will restore sediment supply to the beaches down coast of the Ventura River. So it’s also a climate change adaptation, a classic multi-benefit Conservancy project, deeply supported by the people who live there. At this point, we just need the money.

ARO: So the fish got away in the sense that you almost had it, but it wiggled off the hook?

SCHUCHAT: Well it isn’t just the money, it also has to do with the tendency of the Army Corps of Engineers to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Their jurisdiction and funding restrictions got in our way for a while but ultimately, the state and the locals are going to do remove the dam on their own, without the Corps. The time that these projects take is painful. Peter Douglas, my predecessor, used to like to say that the coast is never saved, you’re always saving it. And the same thing is true in the restoration world. There are hurdles and slowdowns, but there aren’t any final defeats. I resigned myself a while ago to the fact that there were things that I really wanted to see happen, that will happen, but they just won’t happen while I’m here.

Schuchat at the Matilija Dam in Ventura County, with conservancy south coast regional manager Megan Cooper. Photo: SCC

ARO: The Carmel River dam reset took a lot of time and money. How do you feel like those kinds of projects fit into President Biden’s new vision of infrastructure?

SCHUCHAT: When you build new stuff, you really need to be thinking about its lifecycle. Are we putting it someplace where it can always be? We put a couple of nuclear power plants on earthquake faults, but we learned from Fukushima that was not such a great idea. Some pieces of infrastructure, like offshore oil fields, have to be removed and cleaned up once the company is done pumping. But we don’t do that with dams, even though it’s painfully apparent that some of them shouldn’t last forever. Consideration of the lifecycle of infrastructure needs to be part of the equation.

ARO: Now that you are retiring, is there anything else you feel you’ve left undone?

SCHUCHAT: We completed the first phase of the Hamilton Airfield restoration in Marin, and I actually got to be there for the ribbon cutting at the breach, but I wanted to finish restoration of the neighboring property at Bel Marin Keys. We will finish the levee construction this summer, but the restoration work will take much longer.

ARO: What advice do you have for dealing with the complexity of big, ambitious projects like Hamilton, or the South Bay salt ponds restoration, and not running away from it? How do you both hold on to the vision but also let go to get it done?

SCHUCHAT: You can’t overthink. The reliance on stakeholder planning processes, while important in the little “d” democratic sense, can drive you into this world of making things a lot more complicated than they need to be. There is a tendency within the environmental community to make the perfect the enemy of the good. People argue that projects are not good enough, that they could be better! There’s a danger and a risk in taking that attitude. That last increment of design perfection can be illusory, and not worth the time and energy to pursue.

I’ll give you an example from the San Clemente Dam removal in the Carmel Valley. After moving the river around the dam, leaving the dam to hold the accumulated sediment, we spent a huge amount of time and energy designing, engineering, and then constructing a natural step-pool river, with careful placement of boulders and large woody debris pieces. Then we emerged from the drought and had one of our wettest years. The first couple of big storms came roaring down the canyon and rearranged all of that careful work. In retrospect, we wondered, “Why did we do all that?”

ARO: What about the SF Bay Restoration Authority, that’s a big accomplishment! Was that a paradigm shift for the Conservancy?

SCHUCHAT: It’s one of the things in my career I’m most proud of being involved in, and the most fun thing I ever did.

ARO: Why was it fun?

SCHUCHAT: Because I’m a political junkie who likes campaigns and elections and polling and coalition building. Getting the voters to approve the regional tax and authority, that was a great process. And now we have the gift that keeps on giving, half a billion dollars over 20 years. But I don’t think it’s a paradigm shift in the sense that we know that people in the Bay Area love the Bay, and they’re willing to pay for it. Possibly moreso than any other place in the country. But it was a useful demonstration of the willingness of citizens to pay for a big vision. I think it could be replicated elsewhere in California and probably elsewhere in the United States, as long as you have the right sort of institutional framework to be able to do that. And it helps if you have an iconic natural resource that everybody loves. But there’s plenty of places in California with that.

ARO: Do you think there’s more support now for this kind of taxation than before? Given the political environment and stalemates in Washington, I almost prefer to know my tax dollars are going to something very specific and local.

SCHUCHAT: That’s an interesting point. One of the things that we learned from the Measure AA vote itself is that actually, people weren’t worried about how locally the money got spent. The elected officials were, and special interest groups were, because they are all in for particular places and particular things that they want. But you know, 70% of Bay Area voters were perfectly happy to say, “Yes, you can charge me 12 bucks a year, and as long as I’m reasonably sure that the money is being well spent, it’s not actually that important to me that you spend it on my part of the Bay.” Individual citizens are actually less parochial than their elected officials.

ARO: Why didn’t you become a politician?

SCHUCHAT: I’ve thought about it a couple of times. I think the answer, to some extent, is that I’ve always found other ways to be active. I wouldn’t entirely rule it out in the future. But it’s a pretty grueling life. The good ones work really hard.

ARO: Do you think we can use a mechanism like Measure AA to fund climate change adaptation?

SCHUCHAT: We’re going to have to. I’m not expecting the federal government or even really the state to bail us out. So we need to have local money. San Francisco voted a few years ago to start paying for their seawall on the Embarcadero and that’s an example. They’ll get state or federal money, but it probably won’t be enough to do what they need to do.

ARO: Tell me about something unexpected that happened in one of the projects or campaigns that you worked on?

SCHUCHAT: The bond freeze in 2008 was a huge shock, coming as it did after the recall election of Governor Davis. I knew what bonds were, but I hadn’t really looked closely at how they’re marketed and sold, and where the cash comes from. So, I had a crash course in how the international credit markets work and what it means for the state of California. It was a dark time for the Coastal Conservancy, and an even harder time for our grantees who were suddenly cut off. But we scraped through, we found other sources of funding to keep things going. We wound up having to downsize the agency for a period of time, which was not pleasant.

ARO: It got you ready for COVID times, perhaps?

SCHUCHAT: Actually, on the management team, that was kind of our mantra last March, when the shutdown started: “If we can survive the 2008 bond freeze, we can’t get through this!”

Schuchat wears the vest proudly. He’s overseen hundreds of groundbreakings and breaches in in his 20 year tenure. Photo: SCC

ARO: How did you get through the last administration?

SCHUCHAT: The Trump administration was not actually as bad for us as you might think. It was certainly psychologically bad, like having somebody jackhammering at my brain every day. And particularly this last year, only drugs, alcohol, and The Great British Baking Show got me through. The president basically tried to dismantle the entire environmental machinery of government. He didn’t want to spend money on anything environmental but Congress, even when it was Republican, wouldn’t go for it. But our federal funding comes through programs that are national, and there are people in every state, including the red states, who rely on that money. As far as Army Corps of Engineers dollars go, Republican Congressman Graves from Louisiana became one of our best friends. He needed the same things from the Corps we did. Aside from that, it was a great time to be a public official in California. The attitude here was Trump hates us not just because we’re a heavily Democratic state but also because we’re a very diverse state that is making a transition into being a majority minority state. All kinds of diverse people are gaining political power here. That drove the Republicans crazy but made me really proud and happy.

Despite the outward chaos, our work went on. We got lucky because we had this racist dictator who didn’t know how to govern or manage. With no one to run their agencies, they couldn’t really implement their agenda. And even in the places where they did hire people, like for the EPA, they hired stupid people who did dumb things that got thrown out by the courts. So over time, we were left to deal with civil service lifers, and they were great!

ARO: Going forward, is there one last thing you hope to achieve?

SCHUCHAT: I want to see the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project completed in my lifetime. I’d also like to see more progress on the major trail systems that we work on: the Bay Trail and California Coastal Trail and Santa Ana River Trail. Every time I go on the Bay Trail and see how many people are out there, it just makes me incredibly happy. In fact, one great thing about this job is I can go almost anywhere in coastal California and see things that we did, and people enjoying them. The other day at Stinson Beach I saw somebody using one of the beach wheelchairs, with fat tires, that you can push in the sand. We purchased some of those chairs and put them on the beach! All you have to do is go to a website or call a phone number, get a code, and reserve one. Seeing our money making it possible for somebody in a wheelchair to get right up close to the ocean makes me incredibly happy. Just this month, I’ve also been really proud to help move $12 million worth of fire prevention money out the door. It shows what a well-honed machine we are, and the kind of contacts and connections we have with the local governments and Resource Conservation Districts that are going to be spending the money. We were able to turn out a Request for Proposal for that money in two weeks.

Sand-friendly wheelchairs, many of which were installed and paid for by the Conservancy. Photo SCC

ARO: Speaking as one older, white, privileged environmentalist to another, what should we be thinking about in terms of racism and equity in the conservation world?

SCHUCHAT: I’m really proud that I’m leaving behind a much more diverse staff than I found when I came to the Conservancy in 2001. It looks like we’ve cracked the code on hiring for diversity; something like 90% of the people we’ve hired in last few years, about a dozen, have been people of color.  But it’s important to remember we all have to keep chipping away at this. There’s no silver bullet. One thing we did that worked well was to create a very diverse advisory council for our Explore the Coast program. The program brings kids from disadvantaged areas to the coast. The advisory council has taught us a lot and helped us better focus on equity in access to the coast.

ARO: So did you just place a premium on hiring people of color or did you do more?

SCHUCHAT: We had to look at how we wrote the job descriptions, and what classifications we were using, and where we were advertising. Most of our past hires of color have been in our business and accounting department, and we wanted to hire more into program management. We realized we had a job classification that required previous experience in conservation work. And if the conservation field is mostly white, and you require previous experience, you’re going to get mostly white people applying. So we pivoted to looking for the skills and abilities we need, rather than the experience. And we understand that means that we have to train them. So we’ve created a pretty elaborate training curricula that takes 20 weeks. And we had to do all of this within the constraints of the state civil service system, which is Byzantine and incomprehensible. After 20 years, I feel like I really understand how the state budget works but I would not pretend to understand the state human resources system.

ARO: At this change point in your life, is there one last thing you want to say to your colleagues, or to young people, looking forward to the future?

SCHUCHAT: It is very hard to do the work that we do, but the average Californian in the street really loves it and supports it. You’ve got to keep that in mind. Plenty of people are going to come along and say “Don’t do this” or “We can’t afford that.” But back when I used to fly on airplanes, and somebody would ask me what I did for a living, and I’d tell them about the Coastal Conservancy, their response was always: “Wow, that is so cool!”

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Top Photo: Schuchat speaks on San Clemente Dam. Photo: SCC

About the author

Ariel Rubissow Okamoto is both today’s editor-in-chief and the founding editor of ESTUARY magazine (1992-2001). She enjoys writing in-depth, silo-crossing stories about water, restoration, and science. She’s a co-author of a Natural History of San Francisco Bay (UC Press 2011), frequent contributor of climate change stories to Bay Nature magazine, and occasional essayist for publications like the San Francisco Chronicle (see her Portfolio here). In other lives, she has been a vintner, soccer mom, and waitress. She lives in San Francisco close to the Bay with her architect husband Paul Okamoto.

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1 Response
  1. Working with Sam has been a pleasure, and I’ve learned a lot from him. There’s having ideas, and then there’s turning ideas into reality. Some people can only do one or the other, but Sam can do both. I’m glad to read that he’s going to stay active, because California still needs his help. Andy Gunther

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