President Trump has appointed David Bernhardt, until late last year a lobbyist and attorney for the San Joaquin Valley's powerful Westlands Water District, to a top post in the Department of the Interior.
Among the agencies Bernhardt will have a role in overseeing is the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the federal Central Valley Project -- a key source of water for much of California agriculture, including Westlands.
Friday's appointment, which was signaled in November when Bernhardt was appointed part of Trump's transition team, has been met with uniform dismay by California conservationists and fishing interests who have fought a generations-long battle over restoring habitat and environmental water supplies throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin watersheds, including the Delta.
McClatchyDC, the Washington, D.C., outlet for Sacramento-based McClatchy newspapers, has a long piece on Bernhardt's appointment: "Lobbyist who once sued Interior named to be department’s No. 2 official."
McClatchy's Stuart Leavenworth writes:
If confirmed by the Senate, Bernhardt will be in a position to influence upcoming decisions that could benefit his former client.
Under an executive order signed by President Trump, appointees such as Bernhardt are required to recuse themselves from matters involving former clients, although in the past, waivers have been granted for people in his situation. ...
Bernhardt’s nomination, however, is already drawing fire from critics who note that Trump, as a candidate, promised to “drain the swamp” of lobbyist influence over the White House and Congress. As president, Trump has placed lobbyists in key positions of his transition and administration, and adopted ethics rules looser than those of the Obama administration for incoming appointees.
McClatchy notes that Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, offered especially pointed criticism:
“Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest. He should absolutely have to recuse himself from anything having to do with Westlands Water District. That is the most obvious of ethical fault lines here.”
An Ally Praises Appointment
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, praised Bernhardt as a dedicated public servant with the knowledge and expertise to effectively serve in the Interior Department.
Valadao is chief sponsor of HR 1769, a bill that would formalize a settlement in a long-running dispute between Westlands and the federal government over what to do about toxic drainage water resulting from irrigation of some of the district's farmland.
Among other provisions, Westlands agreed to dismiss a lawsuit -- filed in 2011 by Bernhardt -- that sought to force the feds to make good on a commitment to build a multibillion-dollar system to dispose of the poisoned water. In return, the government agreed to forgive the district's $375 million debt for construction of Central Valley Project facilities and granted it long-term access to project water on the same basis as other districts that have paid their CVP debts.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved the settlement Thursday, rejecting an amendment from Huffman that would have barred former Westlands officials or lobbyists -- meaning Bernhardt -- from working on the drainage issue for five years.
Valadao and Westlands -- the water district is still represented by Bernhardt's former firm -- are also allied in an effort to end court-ordered restrictions on water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley designed to protect salmon, Delta smelt and other species. Valadao's sweeping HR 23 also seeks to require increased water deliveries to the valley and would repeal an agreement, decades in the making, to restore chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River.
Environmental groups on Friday said they oppose Bernhardt both for his lobbying on behalf of oil, gas, mining and agricultural interests -- he put in two stints for a Denver-based firm sandwiched around a term as counselor and solicitor for the George W. Bush Interior Department -- and for the ethical questions they say his nomination raises.
In a statement, Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, "Appointing a lobbyist like Bernhardt shows just how empty Donald Trump’s promise to drain the swamp was. From [EPA chief] Scott Pruitt to [Secretary of the Interior] Ryan Zinke, and now David Bernhardt, President Trump has assembled the most anti-environmental administration in history.”
The Golden Gate Salmon Association, a San Francisco-based group representing commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, noted that Bernhardt represented Westlands in a lawsuit that sought to undo court-imposed protections for endangered salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
“Mr. Bernhardt and Westlands have spent the past decade attacking salmon protections and, by extension, the tens of thousands of California fishing jobs tied to salmon,” said John McManus, the association's executive director, in a statement. “It strains credibility to suggest that Mr. Bernhardt would refrain from occupying himself with key departmental decisions that he has spent the last decade working to influence. In fact, those seeking his appointment are almost certainly counting on him to weigh in on their behalf.”
Bernhardt's nomination requires Senate approval. With Republicans holding a 52-48 edge in the upper house, confirmation is likely a formality.