California Groups Issue Bernhardt Warning: Former Lobbyist is Acting on Behalf of Former Clients at Interior

For Immediate Release: 3/11/2018

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta, 209-479-2053
Kathryn Phillips, Sierra Club California, 916-557-1100 x 1020
Noah Oppenheim, Executive Director, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, 415-561-5080 

Sacramento – In a letter sent to Senators Warren, Blumenthal, and Harris today, California water, fishing, environmental organizations and tribal leaders are raising serious ethical questions about acting interior secretary David Bernhardt.

A brutal confirmation fight is expected soon in the Senate as President Trump has now nominated Bernhardt to permanently lead the Department of the Interior. Bernhardt has served as deputy secretary since early in the Trump administration, and became acting secretary after Ryan Zinke resigned in December 2018 under an ethical cloud.

Bernhardt brings multiple conflicts of interest to this position.

“Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest related to his work with Westlands Water District are well documented. He is working rewrite the rules of California water management for the benefit of the Westlands at the expense of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary and California urban water users. His advancement to Secretary of the Interior needs to be stopped, and his work as Deputy Secretary needs to be investigated by the Inspector General,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, director of Restore the Delta in Stockton.

Bernhardt has served as one of the main architects of the Trump administration’s agenda. CNN has reported that since Bernhardt joined Interior in 2017, the agency has made at least 15 policy changes, decisions or proposals that would directly benefit Bernhardt’s former clients, mostly regarding oil industry concerns.

But California groups warn Congress that Bernhardt’s clients also included California’s powerful Westlands Water District. In his lobbying disclosures, Bernhardt had listed “potential legislation regarding the Bureau of Reclamation and the Endangered Species Act” under his specific lobbying areas, including trying to minimize protections for endangered fish populations due to limited water flows.

Bernhardt signed an executive branch ethics pledge required him to refrain from participating in decisions that he previously worked on as a lobbyist for two years. Activists believe he has not honored this pledge and warn that he is now participating in decision that would send more water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary to Fresno-based Westlands and weak endangered fish protections.

In the letter sent today California organizations warn that:

  • Westlands is seeking a permanent water contract to replace their two-year interim contract under Section 4011 of the WIIN Act whereby they will be free from acreage limitations and full cost pricing of water deliveries. The contract is being negotiated in secret and could allow for the permanent delivery of 1 million acre-feet of water per year, enough for 1 to 2 million households annually, for the benefit of under 400 farms, despite drought conditions in California.  No public record exists of how this will impact public trust resources and water planning in California.
  • The Secretary of Interior could rule as soon as April, 2019 determining the financial conditions for this permanent water contract with such dramatic changes. Yet, questions remain unanswered about Westlands Water District’s obligation to repay its share of over $80 million back to the Federal Government for unauthorized Delta tunnels planning expenses. Presently, the Delta tunnels project, known as California WaterFix, has been placed on hold by Governor Newsom to allow for the possible redevelopment of a single tunnel project for California’s State Water Project. Westlands is no longer a participating member in WaterFix planning.

The coalition sending the letter today includes: The Planning an Conservation League, AquAlliance, Crab Boat Owners Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, Environmental Water Caucus, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Sierra Club California, Southern California Watershed Alliance, Institute for Fisheries Resources, CA Save our Streams Council, California Water Impact Network, Save the Amereican River Association, Local Agencies of the Delta, Restore the Delta, North Coast Rivers Alliance, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

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