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Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, was tapped Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown as the state’s new director for the Department of Water Resources, handing a veteran of North Bay politics and water policy a central role in Brown’s controversial bid to overhaul California’s water system with a $17 billion pair of tunnels under Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Davis, 54, has led the county Water Agency since 2010 and is set to begin in his new post in Sacramento in August, pending confirmation by the state Senate. The Department of Water Resources is the lead state agency providing water for 25 million residents, farms and business.

Its most contentious proposal under Brown is the pair of massive tunnels intended to convey Sacramento River water under the Delta and deliver it to users to the south, including farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and cities in Southern California.

“The governor supports that California WaterFix and so do I,” Davis said Wednesday, using the nickname for the disputed project that pits Northern California water and environmental interests against influential agricultural and urban users south of the Delta.

“I will be a major participant in that effort,” Davis said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he was on an unrelated trip to lobby for funding to support long-range weather forecasting.

Davis would succeed former DWR Director Mark Cowin, who retired late last year along with the agency’s chief deputy director, Carl Torgersen. The appointment comes as the state continues to emerge from a historic five-year drought, with a push to fortify supplies, build new reservoirs and protect the environment — initiatives that can be in conflict.

Davis said there is “a long way to go” in addressing the state’s water demand and a need to “find a balance” between water supplies and protection of “habitat and fisheries.”

Water storage projects, including the proposed Sites reservoir in Colusa County, as well as groundwater recharge are parts of the solution, he said.

The state water department has nearly 3,300 employees and operates on a 2017-18 budget of $3.2 billion.

That’s a huge leap from the county Water Agency, with more than 280 employees and a $213 million budget.

It delivers drinking water from the Russian River to more than 600,000 residents in portions of Sonoma and Marin counties and provides wastewater treatment for 60,000 customers in eight sanitation districts in Sonoma County.

Davis said the appointment came about after a surprise call two weeks ago from the governor’s office to talk about the agency director’s job.

“I almost thought it was a joke,” he said.

“I was not looking to change careers.”

Instead, he was asked to come to Sacramento for job interviews.

His salary will be $194,600, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

As head of the county Water Agency, Davis was paid $240,710 last year, the eighth highest-paid county employee.

Davis said he was taking the job to serve a governor he admires.

“I see this governor as just hitting his stride now,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more to accomplish.”

Paul Kelley, a water consultant and former Sonoma County supervisor, said Davis was recognized as “a leader in the water arena in California.”

He noted the county’s water system is “a bit of a microcosm” of the state system, with water storage in the north — at Lake Mendocino near Ukiah and Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg — and delivery to users in the south, including customers in Marin County.

Davis may have been the governor’s choice because he is “not currently aligned with any of the interests” competing for supplies governed by the State Water Project, which the Department of Water Resources oversees.

Davis joined the Water Agency as assistant general manager in 2007. He had previously served as executive director of the Bay Institute, a science-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the San Francisco Bay-Delta Watershed, and as an aide to former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Petaluma Democrat.

Davis, whose background is in public policy, became head of the local agency in a restructuring that put him in charge of policy and management, separating the general manager’s job from engineering.

His predecessor, Randy Poole, also had served as chief engineer.

The governor’s announcement called out Davis for steering the Water Agency, the largest energy user in Sonoma County, towards renewable energy. In 2015, it marked a milestone by sourcing 100 percent of its power needs from renewable sources.

Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which also serves as the Water Agency’s board of directors, said in a statement that the local agency was “known around the world for its innovative water supply initiatives and state-of-the-art sustainability programs.”

Zane in an interview said it was a “feather in the county’s cap” to have Davis named to the major state water post.

Pending the selection of Davis’ successor, the Water Agency will be run by Chief Engineer Jay Jasperse and Assistant General Managers Pam Jeane and Mike Thompson.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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