Estuary News

March 2020

Remembering Bruce Wolfe

Bruce H. Wolfe, for 15 years the Executive Officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, suffered a fatal heart attack on February 25 while out on a run at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Doing what he loved, one inevitably notes; but family, friends, and long-time colleagues in the water world would have preferred to have him around much longer.

Wolfe was an aficionado of the sport of orienteering, a kind of racing with map and compass that requires both speed and accurate navigation. Maintaining precision under time pressure: that could be a pretty good metaphor also for the professional life of this gifted man.

Raised in Piedmont, Wolfe attended Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, where he ran, of course. He ran his way through Stanford on his way to degrees in civil/environmental engineering. He ran during a year abroad at the Stanford-in-France campus at Tours, where he met his future wife, Jan Kraus.

At Stanford, he also played trombone in the Stanford Marching Band, a group of “high-quality low-lifes” he stayed in touch with all his life. In 1977, wearing Birkenstocks, he joined the staff of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. He rose through the ranks, his attire growing more formal, to become Executive Officer in 2003.

If Wolfe got part of his inspiration from his engineer father, he got another dose from his English teacher mother. One of the first things he did in the top post was to circulate a writing style guide. It pointed out that the state code actually directs agencies to use “plain, straightforward language.” “Write clearly!” he demanded. “It’s the law!” A transparent style, he observed, “uncovers mistakes in analysis that bureaucratic writing often disguises.” Engineer Leslie Ferguson recalls amiable wrangles with him over the iconic Strunk & White style guide.

“He had an ironclad memory,” says his colleague Tom Mumley. In discussing a decision about a site, Wolfe could summon up details from visits made many years earlier. Though he made a practice of deferring to staff, he could also back them up with his own command of the facts.

Wolfe had a special passion for wetland restoration and, says his former colleague Naomi Feger, “he rarely missed a levee break.” He served on key committees of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture and steered money from polluter fines to JV projects. As long-time Coordinator Beth Huning recalls, “he wore his [metaphorical] Joint Venture hat everywhere.” “He was one of those rare executive level leaders who find it necessary to be where the work happens,” says Huning’s successor Sandra Scoggin.

One signal achievement of Wolfe’s years at the head of the board was the removal of the mothball fleet, a fixture in Suisun Bay since World War II. This “Reserve Fleet,” originally intended as an emergency resource, had become, Mumley says, “a floating junkyard.” By 2006, highly toxic paint was peeling and flaking off into the water just off Suisun Marsh. The U. S. Maritime Administration denied that the state could do anything about it. Alongside citizen groups, the water board sued in federal court, and prevailed. The 57 decaying ships that Wolfe confronted on his first day in the top post were first substantially cleaned up and then removed.

“In any organization, people line up to say No,” remarks David Elias, point person on the ships, “Bruce said yes.”

Another triumph was Napa River flood control. When the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a classic concrete ditch to protect the town of Napa, the board staff had a novel idea: to claim authority over the project under the Clean Water Act. That law had never been applied to a California infrastructure plan before. Leslie Ferguson recalls drafting a letter warning that the board “may not be able to” sanction the big-ditch plan. Wolfe, her immediate superior at the time, changed one word: the board “will not be able to” approve. Ferguson and Wolfe managed the issue as the Napa plan painfully shifted to the model of “green infrastructure” it is today.

Wolfe’s colleagues recall him as an accessible sort, not strong on hierarchy, hardly ever betraying anger under pressure. “He didn’t ever say unkind things,” recalls Leslie Ferguson, “and I doubt he even thought them.”

After his retirement at the end of 2018, he kept up several of his roles, still showing up for meetings at the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and many another body. He liked sharing his knowledge; he liked to listen and to talk; he liked the company. Many a JV tour, Beth Huning recalls, ended over a bottle of wine. Leslie Ferguson sums up many comments in five words: “Bruce Wolfe was a gift.”

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About the author

John Hart is an environmental journalist and author of sixteen books and several hundred other published works. He is also the winner of the James D. Phelan Award, the Commonwealth Club Medal in Californiana, and the David R. Brower Award for Service in the Field of Conservation. For ESTUARY, he writes on groundwater, infrastructure, and California water politics and history.

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