Gov. Gavin Newsom has appointed Rachel Zwillinger as assistant general counsel for enforcement at CalEPA.

As a water policy advisor at Defenders of Wildlife, Zwillinger was a fierce opponent of voluntary agreements for Bay-Delta flows. In 2020 she argued the administration’s framework for agreements did not meet the state’s environmental standards and was “built on quicksand instead of credible science.” The group threatened to walk out of the process.

Defenders of Wildlife has been a plaintiff in a lawsuit over Trump-era biological opinions, with Zwillinger calling them a death sentence for endangered Delta fish. This year she took aim at part of the state’s emergency drought plan, calling it an “exploitative process” that violated fish and wildlife protections.

Zwillinger has also worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's largest environmental litigators. The CalEPA position does not require Senate confirmation.

Her appointment comes amid optimism for resolving voluntary agreements soon.

Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth acknowledged the state’s goal of a comprehensive plan for both the Sacramento and the San Joaquin river watersheds has been an obstacle for completing voluntary agreements. The comprehensive approach means navigating a wide diversity of stakeholders and hydrology throughout the process.

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Speaking at a Regional Water Authority event Monday, Nemeth said the state has shown it is serious about finding closure in the process soon. California has made significant investments in landscape-scale habitat restoration while granting environmental review exemptions for such projects. The drought is adding further pressure to secure agreements.

“We would like to be in a situation where we can start supporting the species voluntarily as early as next year,” Nemeth said, noting that she hopes for resolution soon “so we can just really get to implementing.”