Beneath The Surface

Water lawyer writes thriller based on landmark case

By Jessica Laskey
June 2022

Everyone in California knows water is a hot topic. Water rights, drought, agriculture, climate change—California’s past and future are inextricably linked to H2O.

Retired water attorney Craig Wilson tapped into the state’s water drama for his debut novel “Kesterson: An Environmental Thriller,” based on the real-life case he handled in the 1980s involving Merced County’s Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.

In the 1970s, Central Valley farmers were having trouble draining excess water from their land. Experts thought migratory birds in the nearby wildlife refuge could benefit from more water, so farms were allowed to divert drainage into the area.

When dead and deformed birds turned up at an alarming rate, authorities discovered the water contained high levels of selenium, a mineral toxic to wildlife when bioaccumulated.

Wilson, then a staff attorney for the State Water Resources Control Board, led the legal battle that ensued. After retiring from his law practice six years ago, he decided to turn his experience into a book. The result is part thriller, part warning.

“I feel it’s a cautionary tale of what can happen to the environment,” Wilson told an interviewer from his alma mater, UC Davis. “This book is almost an allegory to the larger picture—climate change, the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, the fires in California, the hurricanes out east. All these things are happening, but a large part of the population wants to keep chugging away the way we are. I hope it won’t be too late before people wake up.”

Wilson used facts from the case, but also “jazzed it up with intrigue, mystery, graft—sexy stuff” to turn the book into a fictional thriller. Though he has “no delusions” of it becoming a bestseller, he was happy to rekindle his love of writing.

Researching and writing reports was a large part of his career, especially during his years as the state’s first Delta Watermaster and two terms on the Sacramento County Grand Jury. Writing a novel about his favorite subject—water—was a natural fit.

“(As an undergrad), I lucked out in getting an internship with the Department of Water Resources,” the Carmichael resident says. “It was my job to research state water projects and I got hooked on the whole issue of water being the history of California. I found water law and how water rights work very interesting.”

Readers will find Wilson’s writing equally interesting. The book won an honorable mention from an online book review and award contest forum called Readers’ Favorites. Friends Wilson hasn’t talked to in years are resurfacing through the novel.

Though he has another book in the planning stages based on his time as a military lawyer, Wilson is busy with six grandchildren, volunteering, keeping fit and hopefully resuming travel to destinations like the Galapagos Islands. He’s also on the interview panel for next year’s Grand Jury, so the inspiration for another novel can’t be far away.

“Kesterson: An Environmental Thriller” is available at all major book retailers and

Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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