Interior proposes coveted deal to ex-client of agency head

The Interior Department is proposing to award a contract for federal water in perpetuity to California’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier. The district employed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, shown, as a lobbyist for many years.

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.

Conservation groups are demanding fuller disclosure of financial terms and an environmental review of the proposed deal announced Thursday for California’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier. The water district serves some of country’s wealthiest and most politically influential corporate farmers.

Bernhardt served as a lobbyist for Westlands until 2016, the year before he joined the Interior Department, 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,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

Interior spokeswoman Carol Danko said the handling of the Westlands’ contract was delegated entirely to California staffers at the Bureau of Reclamation. The agency will make a final decision after the legally mandated public comment period, she said.

Doug Obegi, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the handling of the contract raises concerns that Interior “is trying to give Westlands a sweetheart deal.”

Bernhardt’s past lobbying work — much of it for industries impacted by Interior decisions — has led some environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers to allege that he may have conflicts of interest in his work at the agency.

As a lobbyist, he was involved in negotiations on a contentious 2016 federal law that made Westlands’ proposed deal possible, allowing water districts to lock up permanent contracts for water from California’s federal water projects.

The 2016 law had been sought for decades by water districts in drought-stricken California. It reshaped the federal handling of water in the U.S. state with the largest economy.

Environmental groups say a permanent deal would let California’s water contractors forgo future negotiations in public, further threatening the survival of wildlife that also need the water.

Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation posted notice on its website Oct. 25 of the proposed contract and its 60-day public comment period. Other water districts are lining up behind Westlands to negotiate their own permanent contracts.

Westland’s contract would give it permanent claim to enough water to supply more than 2 million households, although federal suppliers in practice typically divvy up water each year based on available supply. The water comes from the federal Central Valley Project, a massive, federally built network of dams, tunnels and canals that pipes water from Northern California to farms and cities in the south.

The 2016 law allows Westlands and other water districts to lock in the water contracts for good if they repay the federal government for their share of the Central Valley Project’s costs.

Interior said in its statement Thursday that Westlands owes the federal government $480.7 million.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) comments

Elizabeth Donaldson

Does anyone else see some resemblance to season 3 of Goliath?

Noah Osnos

Let's have a link to the Interior Dept.'s comment site. Agricultural water districts are notoriously inefficient with their use of water, and I suspect that this contract has no requirements for advanced techniques for conservation.

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