by Chris Reed | June 1, 2017 8:10 am
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.
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.
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.
Source URL: https://calwatchdog.com/2017/06/01/trump-nominee-interior-department-threat-central-valley-water-status-quo/
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