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Groups Slam Trump Administration's Sweetheart Water Deal with Westlands Water District

Pictured: David Bernhardt, former Westlands Water District lobbyist and current U.S. Secretary of Interior

Article by Dan Bacher for the Daily Kos, November 8th, 2019

Conservation, environmental justice and public interest groups today responded with outrage to an Associated Press report that Secretary David Bernhardt’s Interior Department is poised to award one of the first contracts for federal water “in perpetuity” to the powerful Westlands Water District - Bernhardt’s former lobby client and largest agricultural water district in the U.S.    

A draft Bureau of Reclamation contract dated October 22 reveals that Interior plans to deliver 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. Reclamation on Friday announced that it has released the Westlands draft repayment contract and has extended the 60-day public comment period until January 8, 2020.

The contract is available at:

“Other water districts have asked the department for similar deals but the bureau has so far only completed Westlands’ contract,” according to Roll Call:

Interior spokesperson Carol Danko claimed that Bernhardt played no role in the decision to grant the contract to the controversial water agency, but public trust advocates disagree. The Western Values Project today slammed Bernhardt for his “clear conflicts of interest” in the water deal.

“Despite Bernhardt’s clear conflicts of interest and his involvement in decisions that are currently under investigation for ethics violations, he can’t stop carrying water for his powerful former client,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Values Project. “The flood gates of corruption flow through Bernhardt, who has manipulated scientific studies, prioritized resources, and tasked staff all to benefit a former client at the expense of the public. Bernhardt’s level of corruption may only be eclipsed by that of his boss, but that should not prevent Congress from initiating an investigation immediately.” 

Salmon advocates also expressed their opposition to the water deal between Westlands and Interior, since guaranteeing more Northern California water will only further imperil struggling runs of salmon and steelhead on the Sacramento, Joaquin, Trinity and Klamath rivers.

"Save California Salmon is strongly opposed to this sweetheart contract,” said Regina Chichizola, Save California Salmon's co-director, in a statement. “Westlands Water District not only diverts California's coldest salmon rivers to the desert hundreds of miles away, they use it to water crops on California's poisoned lands."  

"Climate change impacts to our rivers and possible impacts to Tribal water rights makes locking in these diversions unacceptable. Much of Westlands' crops are exported, but their diversions and pollution are largely responsible for killing off Northern California's salmon, and their discharges are polluting our drinking water. We should be retiring some of Westlands lands and protecting our rivers, not promising an endless contract to Westlands because they are Bernhardt's buddies,” stated Chichizola.

In response to the report, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, urged Governor Newsom “to condemn the conflict of interest between Secretary Bernhardt and Westlands Water District reported today by Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press.”

“This corrupt water giveaway from Bernhardt, Westlands' former lobbyist, is undermining the voluntary agreement process being led by the Newsom administration. We can never achieve what is best for Delta flows with non-stop water giveaways to the Westlands Water District through a perpetual water contract and behind the scenes wheeling and dealing. It's time for Governor Newsom to step-up and do what is best for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary. The voluntary agreement process must be transparent, not only within state processes, but at the federal level. And it must include impacted parties from the Delta,” she stated.


In her article Knickmeyer said, “The Interior Department is proposing to award one of the first contracts for federal water in perpetuity to a powerful rural California water district that had long employed Secretary David Bernhardt as a lobbyist….Bernhardt served as a lobbyist for Westlands until 2016, the year before he joined Interior, initially as deputy secretary.”

“The Interior Department needs to look out for the public interest, and not just serve the financial interests of their former lobbying clients,” Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California,” told Knickmeyer.

Bernhardt’s plan to award the sweetheart deal to Westlands has been proposed at a critical time for Delta smelt, Sacramento River winter Chinook salmon, steelhead and other fish populations that depend on a healthy Bay-Delta Estuary to survive and thrive. The Delta smelt is moving closer and extinction, due to a combination of massive water exports to San Joaquin Valley agrib