The Passing of a Respected Water Warrior

Remembering California Water Law Attorney Clifford Lee

Clifford (Cliff) Lee (credit: California Lawyers Association)Clifford (Cliff) Lee, one of California’s most knowledgable and respected water law experts, died suddenly late last month.  His passing leaves a tremendous void in the field of California water law and policy.

After earning his undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley, Cliff attended law school at U.C. Davis and quickly became entranced by water law.  Upon receiving his law degree in 1976 and passing the California Bar, Cliff’s first legal job was serving as a staff attorney with then-California Governor Jerry Brown’s Commission to Review California Water Rights Law.  (Faced with a protracted drought in the mid-1970’s, Governor Brown appointed a distinguished group of water law experts to develop and recommend a series of reforms to California’s antiquated water rights system that would make it more responsive to modern conditions.)  The Commission, ably aided by its staff, developed a series of thoughtful reform proposals that–at least in the 1970’s–wound up being widely ignored by state policymakers.

But that experience only deepened Cliff Lee’s passion for water law and policy.  His next job was as a Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice’s Natural Resources Law Section,.  There he quickly emerged as the Department’s lead attorney on water law and related issues.  For over 40 years, Cliff most ably represented the State of California in critically-important water litigation in both state and federal courts.  His principal clients were the California Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and–especially–the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency responsible for administering California’s water rights system.

Of equal importance as his mastery of water law litigation in the courtroom was Cliff’s ability to provide consistently wise counsel to his client agencies.  He was also a master at the negotiating table, often brokering important water law settlements following lengthy and arduous negotiations.

In all of these roles, Cliff earned the respect of the entire California water law community–opposing attorneys, water districts, state agency officials and judges alike.  Cliff’s quiet but incisive and persuasive views, along with his rock-solid integrity, made him a legend in California water law and policy circles over four decades.

In addition to his busy water law practice, Cliff somehow found time to serve as an adjunct professor at U.C. Hastings College of the Law.  There he taught water law–and shared his passion for water law and policy with hundreds of law students–for almost 20 years.

In recognition of his distinguished career of public service, the California Lawyers Association’s Environmental Law Section awarded Cliff Lee its annual Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.

Cliff retired from the California Department of Justice in 2019, but he didn’t slow down.  Instead, he continued to write and publish articles on water issues.  Beginning in 2021, Cliff volunteered to collaborate with a small group of fellow water wonks (myself included) on yet another attempt to reform California’s water rights laws.  This time, in the face of an even more serious and extended state drought than the one in the 1970’s, that reform effort gained considerably more political traction.  Based in part on Cliff’s astute reform proposals and testimony before the California Legislature, several of those proposals were enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Right up until his passing last month, Cliff was busy working on drafting and refining additional water law reform proposals.  The working group of which he was a critical part has pledged to pursue those reforms in the 2023 California legislative session.  So Cliff’s legacy in water law and policy continues to grow even after his untimely death.

Unfailingly modest, self-effacing, thoughtful and eloquent, Cliff Lee was one of California’s most widely respected water law attorneys and thought leaders.  He leaves behind an abiding legal legacy.  California water law and policy are much the poorer for Cliff’s passing.


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Reader Comments

14 Replies to “The Passing of a Respected Water Warrior”

  1. Thank you for beautifully providing much-deserved recognition of Cliff’s dedication and outsized contributions to water law and policy. You also hint at his exceptional character. He and I were classmates at Davis. Even as a law student, he was much loved and respected. It breaks my heart to learn that he is gone.

  2. Thank you, Richard, for the post and the excellent summary of Cliff’s career and achievements. I had not heard of his passing. I know he touched the lives of thousands of California lawyers. I met him in as an extern with the AG’s office in 84 when he supervised me in researching federalism issues related to CA water projects. The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago in the State Building in SF, when he told someone how much more challenging my job (as Chief Counsel of an agency) was than his — to which I of course disagreed. He was a great guy and a great lawyer, and contributed so much to the state and CA water law. He will be missed.

  3. Cliff was one of the truly great water lawyers- dedicated to reforming Ca water law. He did not get wealthy as a water lawyer but he left a wealth of knowledge for all.

  4. I was so sad to here about Cliff’s passing. I got to work with Cliff in the 1970’s as he helped to successfully defend law suits against the SWRCB actions during that drought. I have worked with him over the years on water right issues while I was at both the SWRCB and DWR. He has always been a great mind and pleasure to work. He is one of the best water attorney’s with whom to work. He will be missed.

  5. I was deeply saddened to learn of Cliff Lee’s passing. I first met him when he was on the staff of the governors commission in the 1970’s; he was one of several great California water lawyers who did that invaluable work, along with Anne Schneider, Dave Anderson, and others. Long after the commission’s report was produced, I (like many others) retained reference copies of Cliff’s papers on conservation and transfer of water rights, as well as the papers on instream uses and groundwater that Anne Schneider wrote. Cliff was a tireless and serious advocate for the legal interests of the state agencies he represented, but he always had a clear understanding of the context in which the issues he litigated were taking place — that understanding of perspective and “the big picture“ made it doubly important that he became a teacher. He will be sorely missed..

  6. Cliff was one of the most patient, articulate, brilliant and of course, knowledgeable professionals I have had the privilege to work with. His visionary service to California profoundly protected our state. We will miss his love for water law and keen insights. Thank you Rick for this tribute to Cliff.

  7. I worked with Cliff for seven years at the Attorney General’s office in SanFrancisco. He was one of the finest lawyers I’ve ever had the pleasure of joining forces with. From the Medfly challenge to the Southern states who attempted to enforce a blockade against trucks filled with California produce (they lost and California prevailed) to the early days of disputes over Delta water supplies, Cliff was there and always dependable. After leaving S.F for the UN in Rome, I saw less of Cliff, but kept hearing of his exploits before the state and federal courts on behalf of the people of California. He deserved all of the accolades he received. He was a lawyer’s lawyer and the people of this state couldn’t have asked for a better advocate.

  8. I first met Cliff nearly thirty years ago in a courtroom. We worked on many of the same water cases thereafter, sometimes on the same side, sometimes on the opposite side. I preferred having him on my side, but always had the highest regard for him personally and professionally. I was pleased to see that after retiring from the AG’s Office he was actively sharing his wealth of knowledge, including by speaking at every conference I attended it seemed. This is a great and untimely loss. I will miss him dearly.

  9. Mr. Lee was humble. He always thanked his wife for taking on most of the family duties while he fought the good fight for the State of California. The field of environmental law lost one of its great warriors.

  10. Cliff Lee was one of the finest lawyers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and learning from. My introduction to Cliff was while I was working for DWR and we quickly became friends. He was a friend and mentor to many of us on all things water, CEQA, and ESA. I will miss his wit, energy, and humor. But most of all, I will miss his friendship.

  11. Cliff was one of the all-time great water lawyers and a terrific guy. I am shocked to hear of his passing. When I saw him at the Environmental Law Conference in October, I never would have thought that it would be the last time I would see him. This is a big loss.

  12. I always enjoyed listening to Cliff talk about water law and related topics. He was incredibly knowledgeable, and at the same time, an excellent communicator. I wish we had more time to see what he would do in retirement, as he was getting involved in some interesting projects and also speaking about his own personal views more freely.

  13. Cliff had boundless energy and a true passion for water law. He was not only smart but made learning and practicing the craft of law fun. Even difficult tasks were made better by having Cliff Lee involved. I will miss him dearly. He left his mark but he had so much more to contribute.

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About Richard

Richard Frank is Professor of Environmental Practice and Director of the U. C. Davis School of Law’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center. From 2006-2010, …

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About Richard

Richard Frank is Professor of Environmental Practice and Director of the U. C. Davis School of Law’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center. From 2006-2010, …

READ more

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