Teresa Heinz, wife of Democratic frontrunner John Kerry, is one of the country’s most generous and high-profile environmental philanthropists. She’s given hundreds of millions of dollars to green activist groups, research centers, and nongovernmental organizations.
But even eight-figure checks can’t guarantee that a landowner won’t have environmental fights in her own backyard. Literally, in the case of Heinz.
Back in 1999, the lawn of Kentucky bluegrass surrounding Heinz’s ski lodge in Sun Valley, Idaho was drying out as the region suffered a “fairly severe” drought by Department of Agriculture standards. (The Heinz lodge itself is built from a 15th-century barn that she and her late husband imported from England beam-by-beam.) The size of Heinz’s lawn is disputed–the Boston Herald reported it as five acres, while former Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig recalls it as being between a half-acre and an acre at that time.
Initially, Heinz’s landscapers dug a well, apparently without the required permit. But the well’s water use may have remained within limits, because property owners are entitled to drill a well for domestic use and up to half acre of landscaping, according to Harlig.
But soon it was clear that maintaining Heinz’s property would need more water. So she and her neighbor, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, applied for a permit to build a pipeline and take water from the Big Wood River, which is adjacent to her property, up the hill to water her lawn and maintain her landscaped greenery. But the county had just passed a new policy and ordinance preventing that type of transfer.
And with that, Heinz stepped into one of the most passionate and divisive issues facing western communities: water rights.
“The dispute was not unusual,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of Idaho Conservation League. “This is a dry place, and what’s happening in much of state is a conflict between the old agricultural west and the new, the tourist or second home dynamic. We have a phrase out here, ‘whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over.’”
The state’s leading environmental organizations contended Heinz’s pipeline proposal threatened the river and its wildlife.
“The Wood River basin is over-appropriated,” said Bill Sedivy, the executive director of Idaho Rivers United. “We protested the request for a water right filed on behalf of Teresa Heinz because it could have had damaging effects on the Wood River.”
“Water is finite, and water uses are evolving,” Johnson said. “She was proposing one way to use it, and we didn’t think it was a particularly good one.”
Marti Bridges, then-water policy head for Idaho Rivers United, told the Boston Herald at the time that the amount of water Heinz and Wynn wanted to divert would fill ten large municipal swimming pools each year, a volume that she said “could be the difference between a fish population making it through summer during spawning or rearing.”
Today, Bridges is a manager at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. She said she didn’t think very highly of the Boston Herald or the reporter who wrote about the controversy at the time, and said she had no interest in discussing “old news.”
Harlig said the county’s problem wasn’t with Heinz’s request per se, but the next 50 or 100 property owners who would want the same deal.
“The amount of water would have been almost immeasurable,” he said. “The county’s position was that we wanted to prevent this from proliferating.”
Sedivy said the Heinz request was to collect ten cubic feet per second. The U.S. Geological Survey defines cubic foot per second (cfs) as “the flow rate or discharge equal to one cubic foot of water per second or about 7.5 gallons per second.” According to the USGS, the Wood River’s flow can range from 130 cfs in January to 900 to 1200 cfs at the annual peaks.
Harlig said the county even offered Heinz’s lawyers a deal that would allow their pipeline, as long as no others would be built. The Heinz lawyers rejected the compromise without consulting their client, further heightening the tension. The simpler–and more expensive–option for Heinz would have been to extend the water system of nearby Ketchum to her property, and just pay the higher water bill from the town.
“If she had known what was going on, she probably would have made that choice,” Harlig said. “She relied on her landscape company, which didn’t take the proper steps or give her good advice.”
Ultimately, the county rejected Heinz and Wynn’s water use request, and while Heinz had the option to appeal, she didn’t. Today the property uses water from Ketchum.
Harlig calls the incident an overblown tempest in a teacup, and his praise for Heinz is effusive. “Her environmental record has been outstanding, and I’ve never had a bone to pick with her,” he said, having earlier told the Associated Press, “I don’t think anyone walks on water, but she’s as close as it gets.” While there’s no reason to doubt Harlig’s account of the water controversy, it is worth noting he attended a campaign reception for John Kerry thrown by Democratic senatorial candidate Alan Blinken in 2002. (“I was there, and go to all of those events for both Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “As a public official, it’s almost required of you.”)
“It was not really contentious at the time,” Sedivy said. “It’s something that people file here all the time, and it’s routinely accepted or rejected based on the state’s assessment of the water level.”
But some local environmentalists’ opinions of Heinz and her water request aren’t quite so fond.
“Was there a concern that a wealthy, prominent resident could get special treatment? You bet,” Johnson said. “But there’s also a culture of keeping a grip on that here. Let me put it this way, there is not a shortage of big houses in Sun Valley. They come here, and they build them–and I’m not pegging Heinz alone with this–and they make assumptions about what they can do. In some ways, it’s how America works. That’s where people like me come in.”
So why did Heinz’s application stir up such a brouhaha in the Boston papers? Perhaps because it came after Kerry and Heinz had a fire hydrant moved in front of their Boston townhouse to open up a more convenient parking space. That particular mini-scandal began in March 1996, when the Boston Globe printed a photo showing Heinz’s Jeep Cherokee parked next to a fire hydrant near her five-story brick home at Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square.
A little more than a year later, the couple put in a formal request to the Boston fire department to move the hydrant. Within a week, the district chief went to the site himself and approved the move. After the hydrant was moved around the corner (at the expense of Kerry and Heinz, not taxpayers), Kerry irritated his neighbors by claiming the five new legal parking spaces created by the move. Local real-estate gurus estimated the new spaces would add $200,000 or more to the value of the Heinz-Kerry mansion. Eventually, the senator sent word to his neighbors that he would abide by the longstanding unwritten agreement that each house on the privately owned square has a right to only two parking spaces.
Neither controversy had much political fallout for Kerry, besides a few snickering newspaper columnists. Then again, he’s a Democratic incumbent in Massachusetts, not exactly an endangered species.
Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political analyst and human quote machine, says stories like this about Kerry and Heinz are “revealing, but frankly fairly typical of elites… Whatever their beliefs, they apply to everyone but themselves. Whenever it’s inconvenient, those other principles are suspended.”
Sabato adds that the charge of elitism and faux-populism wouldn’t be useful to President Bush in his reelection bid because the incumbent’s background is too similar. But he thinks other Republicans could use anecdotes like these to hammer Kerry as a “Botoxed Brahmin who can’t relate to the daily life of everyday guy.”
–Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, is a frequent contributor to NRO and a commentator on London’s ITN News.