The most ardent and charismatic defender of Central Valley water quality resigned Wednesday from the DeltaKeeper organization he launched a decade ago.
Bill Jennings is probably the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's most recognizable figure. His jolly appearance often contrasted with his tenacious work on behalf of fish and rivers, but it made him a perfect icon for the oft-misunderstood region.
As DeltaKeeper's boss, he created a powerful grass-roots coalition that tested farm and industry runoff and won dozens of battles to improve water quality.
At a July board meeting of DeltaKeeper's parent organization, BayKeeper, Jennings announced his resignation. His last day was Wednesday.
"Last month, I realized I could be more effective and do more for the environment elsewhere," he said.
He declined to elaborate.
David Fries resigned from BayKeeper's board of directors at the same time, partly out of loyalty to Jennings.
Fries said BayKeeper is turning away from outlying programs like DeltaKeeper to focus its energy on San Francisco Bay. He fears this will mean less autonomy and money for DeltaKeeper.
David Yearsley of the Petaluma RiverKeeper group also resigned at the same July 28 meeting. Fries, a Stockton resident and chemistry professor at University of the Pacific, was the only BayKeeper board member who didn't live in the Bay Area.
"It's going to be centered strongly in San Francisco," Fries said of BayKeeper. "Even though there will still be some outlying programs, I don't think they'll be nearly as strong as they've been. It just seemed time to put my energy elsewhere, too."
BayKeeper Executive Director Leo O'Brien disagreed about the change of emphasis. He said DeltaKeeper will continue to receive "the same or higher" levels of support.
Jennings' assistant, Kari Burr, has been named interim leader of DeltaKeeper while recruitment for a permanent replacement is under way.
"Bill has been responsible for stopping hundreds of polluters and changing the regulatory fabric of water pollution in the Central Valley," O'Brien said. "We're absolutely committed to our DeltaKeeper chapter. We consider it to be some of our most important work."
Jennings, 62, intends to keep fighting for the Delta. He said he has offers from several groups to join their work, and is also considering starting a new environmental group in the region.
He will continue to serve as chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and expects to continue working alongside BayKeeper to improve water quality in the West's largest estuary.
"He's basically been the last line of defense for the Delta," said Mike Jackson, attorney for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. "His personality is intriguing in the sense that he doesn't claim to be the best-educated person. He doesn't claim to be the person with the most funding. He simply does the right thing all the time."
A veteran of the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s, Jennings landed in Stockton and "slipped back into the mainstream" by opening a tobacco and fly fishing store.
Then a series of fish kills on the Mokelumne River got him interested in water quality.
"The juices got stirred," he said. "I really learned that one person or a small group of people can make a difference."
Jennings and others formed Committee to Save the Mokelumne and began challenging water interests on the river. A series of legal challenges led to the closure and containment of an abandoned mine that was leaching toxins into the river.
The group also forced the East Bay Municipal Utility District to increase river flows from its waterworks on the Mokelumne.
A settlement from one of those early lawsuits helped start DeltaKeeper in 1995. The tireless Jennings, with his bushy white beard and ever-present pipe, has since become the face most associated with the Delta.
"He looks like Santa Claus, and yet I learned while watching him that this was a Santa Claus on a mission," said Randy Kanouse, lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
"I admired his commitment to protecting the Mokelumne River, and the ferocity with which he pursued that goal. That's one Santa Claus you want to have in your corner."