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One morning at the Regency Club in Westwood, at a breakfast hosted by the Los Angeles Business Council, H. David Nahai, president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners, tells a story about speaking to his daughter’s eighth-grade class on Earth Day about the effects of plastics in our waterways and in the marine environment. At one point, a woman at the breakfast leans over and whispers audibly to another at her table.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)“Wow,” she says. “David Nahai has really turned into an environmentalist.”
“Yes,” says the other. “And he’s a Republican!”
Actually, Nahai insists he has been an environmentalist for nearly 30 years — since the early ’70s when, as a boarding-school student in England, he read Camus and Hesse and says he realized that “mankind is the architect of its own destiny — we can’t rely on a conscious God to fix things.”
What’s more, he was only briefly a Republican. Having emigrated from Iran in the late 1970s in the wake of the Shah’s overthrow, Nahai was among the generation that fled the revolution for the United States. Reagan’s camp had just solved the Iranian hostage crisis that happened under President Carter’s watch; the Republicans were trying out their new “big tent” theory.
“We thought that might work,” admits Nahai, who, like a lot of Iranian Jews, left home and livelihood in Iran. “But early on it became clear that I didn’t want to identify with the Republican Party. Somebody had lifted the big tent up by its poles and stuck it out in a field in the middle of nowhere.”
These days, Nahai, 54, sits on the board of the League of Conservation Voters and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, where he has served for 10 years — four of them as chair. He has been instrumental in holding the DWP to its promise to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010, and in returning water to the Owens River, which the city ofLos Angeles has drained for its own use since 1913. Back then, DWP chief William Mulholland stood on the river’s banks and declared “There it is — take it!” In December, when the DWP held a ceremony to restore the river, Nahai turned that remark on its head. “To my brothers and sisters of the Owens Valley,” he announced, “I would like to say this: There it is — take it back!”
Nahai has been known to make disarmingly gracious personal calls to ratepayers when blackouts stretch over days; he has a good-looking gravitas about him that makes you sort of grateful he’s on the side of good things like clean water and renewable energy. He’s also a real estate lawyer and investor, a graduate of the London School of Economics who spends much of his time in a world that environmental activists consider strange and dark: He runs a Century City law practice devoted to real estate. He sits on the board of a bank. In one sense, his double life makes it possible for him to build consensus between environmental and business leaders. In another — even better — it sustains his resolve when corporate lobbyists and trade associations chafe against antipollution regulations.
“I’ve done the very large billion-dollar deals. I know what goes on in America’s boardrooms. And as a small-business owner, I have to meet payroll every two weeks,” he says. “So when somebody from the Building Industry Association claims that storm-water regulations would destroy the construction industry, I know that’s wildly exaggerated speculation.”
None of this means, however, that Nahai is above criticism from other people in the environmental community, who complain that the water board too often fails to enforce its own rules and that the DWP has not moved fast enough to wean itself off dirty coal-fired power plants in other states. Most recently, as the DWP began exploring a plan to build a transmission line called the Green Path, along which it could transport wind-generated watts from the desert and geothermal energy from the Salton Sea — neither of which pump climate-changing carbon into the skies — wilderness advocates erupted in protest over the DWP potentially trampling on sensitive wilderness habitat.
“No matter what you do, somebody is not going to be happy,” Nahai acknowledges. “For me, I have to come down on the side of the greater good. That’s got to prevail. And, in the case of the Green Path, the greater good is that we have 2,000 megawatts of world-class geothermal power in the Imperial Valley. It would be a dereliction not to access that.
“A position of opposition and resistance is comfortable for a lot of people,” he adds. “But as many of us have started to be in positions of government, we’ve learned that you can’t just resist anymore. You have to lead and reach compromises.”
He considers it a sign of a significant shift in the environmental movement that activists increasingly count themselves in the same camp as business leaders, who have begun to recognize that good environmental ethics are not only healthy for the economy; they’re necessary.
“There comes a time when ignoring the environment has a counterproductive effect on the economy,” says Nahai, who calls the Chamber of Commerce notion that clean-air regulations will slow California’s economy “nonsense.”
“There isn’t a difference between good environmental policy and good economic policy,” he argues. “By incubating new green technologies, we’re going to give birth to a whole new way of making money.”