Congress

Interior nears a contract with a company its secretary used to lobby for

Conservation groups fear water deal will be a hazard for protected salmon and other aquatic life

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt testifies in May 2019. The department he leads is close to completing a contract for a water district he represented as a lobbyist. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Interior Department is close to completing a permanent water supply contract for a water district once represented by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt as a lobbyist, despite concerns that doing so would imperil aquatic species including endangered salmon. 

Conservation groups say the deal between the Interior Department and the Westlands Water District, which serves and is run by farmers in California’s Central Valley, promises to permanently divert more federally managed water to the district just as climate change threatens to make the state hotter and more prone to extreme drought.

[Democrats’ Bernhardt probe has California’s Cox in a tough spot]

“California has a limited water resource and water is going to become more and more scarce with climate change. Westlands Water District has used its outsized influence with Secretary Bernhardt to jump over other people to acquire water rights and guarantees that they shouldn’t get like this,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of California water conservation group Restore the Delta. “Bernhardt is like Santa Claus, handing out goodies to his former client.”

Interior spokesperson Carol Danko said Bernhardt played no role in the decision to award the contract to his former lobbying client.

Before joining the Trump administration, Bernhardt was an attorney and lobbyist representing the water district, a quasi-public agricultural water agency made up of roughly 700 farms. In 2015 and 2016, on behalf of Westlands, Bernhardt lobbied Congress to tack riders for California agriculture onto legislation addressing the lead water crisis in Flint, Mich. 

That bill was signed into law in the final weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency with the riders included. Among other things, the bill gave authority for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation to convert temporary water contracts into permanent ones for water districts like Westlands in exchange for them paying back their debt to the federal government for legacy water infrastructure in California. 

Now, with Bernhardt at the helm, the department is primed to give the first one of these to Westlands. 

Huge supply

Westlands told CQ Roll Call that Bernhardt lobbied on certain provisions of the 2016 bill but not the contract conversion language. 

A draft Bureau of Reclamation contract dated Oct. 22 shows the department plans to give Westlands up to 1.15 million acre-feet of water a year, more than double the water supply used by the city of Los Angeles in 2018. Other water districts have asked the department for similar deals but the bureau has so far only completed Westlands’ contract. 

The contract is subject to a 60-day public comment period that will close over Christmas. Danko said the department will not finalize the contract until it has considered all public comments. 

Westlands said it typically won’t get the full amount of water allotted under the contract. When the Bureau of Reclamation determines annual water deliveries it considers factors such as water availability. That process also includes analyzing the impact of federal and applicable state regulations including species protections, said Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham in a Nov. 6 interview. 

Bernhardt’s previous work for Westlands has cast a shadow over his leadership at the Interior Department.

Before joining the department, Bernhardt was an attorney and lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a Denver-based law firm. Once in the department, he started moving levers that would help Westlands. In a Feb. 12 interview with The New York Times, Bernhardt acknowledged that in late 2017, four months after joining the department as deputy secretary, he directed a senior water official at the Bureau of  Reclamation to start weakening protections for two endangered fish that stood in the way of diverting more water to Westlands.

In April, less than one week after the Senate confirmed Bernhardt as Interior secretary, the Interior Department inspector general notified Senate Democrats and watchdog groups it was opening an investigation into whether he violated the president’s ethics pledge by working on issues related to former clients. The investigation is supposed to include a review of Bernhardt’s work on implementing provisions of the 2016 law. 

The investigation hasn’t stalled the department from following through on efforts to maximize water supply for California farmers. In October, Interior and the Commerce departments released scientific reports that said the bureau could maximize water diversions to agricultural districts like Westlands and still conserve the endangered species. 

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee are investigating Bernhardt’s work on issues he lobbied on, including policy decisions beneficial to Westlands. They are debating whether or not they should give Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., authority to subpoena for documents amid what they say is stonewalling by the department, though a vote has not yet been scheduled.

Westlands says that since Bernhardt joined the Interior Department in 2017, the water district has had no direct contact with him. 

“I keep reading about the influence that Westlands Water District has on Mr. Bernhardt. We don’t communicate with Secretary Bernhardt,” Birmingham said.  

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.