Trump nominee for Interior Department a threat to Central Valley water status quo

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump’s promise to help Central Valley farmers get more water and to reduce environmentalists’ influence over the federal government got him a warm reception in rallies last May and August in the region that leads the way in feeding the nation and in powering California’s $54 billion agricultural industry.

As president, for a variety of reasons, Trump so far has only been able to provide part of the relief on water supplies that many in the Central Valley sought, even in the wake of a winter rain deluge. But Trump has signaled his intent to honor his promise to help the region by choosing David Bernhardt – a veteran of California’s water wars – for the No. 2 job in the Interior Department.

Bernhardt is a Colorado-based partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a multi-state law firm which has on four occasions represented the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, the largest U.S. irrigation district, in lawsuits targeting Interior Department policies. The law firm has been paid $1.3 million by the water agency since 2011.

Bernhardt’s Senate confirmation is expected this week or soon thereafter, but it may be close to a party-line vote. At a May 17 meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Bernhardt was grilled by ranking Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington and other Democrats over the conflicts of interest he would face because of his history representing Westlands and Cadiz, a Los Angeles land development firm that has fought with federal regulators over its audacious plan to access the water in a Mojave Desert aquifer.

Bernhardt: Effect on jobs should matter in regulatory decisions

At the hearing, Bernhardt repeatedly said he would avoid issues involving former clients unless given the blessing of Interior Department ethics lawyers. But Bernhardt’s remarks in answer to another question explain why he may be such a threat to the Central Valley’s water status quo.

When asked about his commitment to “scientific integrity” in enforcing Interior Department policies, Bernhardt said, “I will look at the science with all its significance and its warts. You look at that, you evaluate it and then you look at the legal decision you can make. In some instances the legal decision may allow you to consider other factors, such as jobs.”

This is music to the ears of many Californian Republicans, starting with Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. He has long contended that the Central Valley has suffered from a “man-made drought” because of bureaucratic decisions that interpret laws in ways that place the interests of  endangered fish such as the delta smelt over the needs of humans – despite no compelling legal obligation to do so.

The Obama administration rejected the contention, saying that its actions to use fresh water supplies to help sustain the delta smelt instead of helping Central Valley farmers followed laws requiring the federal government to protect endangered species and the ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Administration representatives said the decisions Nunes slammed as arbitrary were anything but.

Yet the highest-profile fight between Bernhardt’s law firm and Obama’s Interior Department wasn’t about the delta smelt or allegedly dubious bureaucratic maneuvering. It was over toxic substances in the irrigation water coming from Westlands’ 940 square-mile district. Despite criticism from environmentalists, the Obama administration agreed to a settlement on how the problem would be ameliorated that the Fresno Bee estimated could save the water agency more than $375 million. Greens who didn’t like the ruling couldn’t overcome the case that Bernhardt built that federal courts had consistently held that the federal government bore the burden for building drainage systems to limit the impact of the toxins.

Feds control 100 million acres of land in California

But Bernhardt’s confirmation would also insert him in other California water issues.

As a Sacramento Bee editorial noted, the deputy interior secretary historically has been “directly involved in virtually every aspect of California water, from the Colorado River agreement in the south to the Klamath River in the north, and, especially, the operations of the Central Valley Project.”

Given that the federal government owns or effectively controls 100 million acres of land in California – second only to Alaska in federal land holdings in the 50 states – this focus by the agency’s number two official is unsurprising.

3 comments

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  1. Nick Machiavelli
    Nick Machiavelli 1 June, 2017, 09:32

    The “audacious” (risky) Mojave Desert water project mentioned in this article (Cadiz Water) is not audacious at all but would harvest water off dry lake beds that would evaporate anyway and convey that saved water to Orange County water districts to lessen the risks of drought with almost no environmental impacts. Check a science book. Dry lake beds are where nature allows underground water to evaporate back to the sky. But that wasn’t the sort of “scientific integrity” mentioned in the article, was it?

    Moreover, the recent “drought” was not a drought at all but a structural water shortage (as documented by the Bureau of Reclamation “Water Supply and Yield Study (2008) that reported California was running a 4.5 million acre-foot water deficit per year way before the 2012 to 2016 drought). California is running water deficits like it runs budget deficits.

    As for Westlands Water District, the Tulare Basin once was an intermittent inland lake that was so big it nearly bisected California in two. It was a big water bog. Westlands turned it into agricultural production and in so doing solved a big environmental blight. Think Salton Sea relocated to Kern County and what a morass that would be. Westlands didn’t create that morass but alleviated it. So it may be that the Federal government should be responsible for drainage which could be used to recharge the Tulare Basin if wetlands were used as filters. I thought environmentalists liked wetlands? Certainly, Westlands has no jurisdiction over the lands receiving the drainage water; and it is Federal water after all. That sort of has a jingoistic rhyme to it: Westlands for wetlands.

    Cultural value issues masquerade as objective science. We could let the Tulare Basin revert back to nature resulting in the largest toxic dump and mosquito breeding grounds in the state. That is one cultural value. Or we could continue to let Westlands use the land for agricultural production that generates taxes and eliminates the largest environmental hazards by virtue of doing so. That is another cultural value. The question is what do we value, not what “science says”, which is nothing but obfuscation for crass politics.

    Reply this comment
    • Itachee
      Itachee 3 June, 2017, 14:53

      You claim it was Westlands WD that impacted/drained the Tulare Basin. That is hog wash. Westlands is on no way connected physically or politically with Tulare Lake and the hydrologic basins of the two are neither the same nor connected. Finally the Tulare Are area today receives water from the State Water Project, not the Federal Central Valley Project.

      I am a now retired water resources engineer with a 35 year career working with and for water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley including 13 years at Wesltands.
      The next time you post on Calwatchdog or anywhere else you should do some fact checking on yourself. And Calwatechdog should monitor your posts as well

      Reply this comment
  2. Nick Machiavelli
    Nick Machiavelli 3 June, 2017, 17:19

    I never wrote that Westlands impacted the Tulare Basin, except perhaps in a positive way.

    And yes Westlands gets water through SWP but it is the Federal government that Westlands is asking to remedy the drainage issue.

    Next time sign your name instead of wearing an Intafa mask.

    Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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