Interior suggests ex-client of department head for major contract

Interior suggests ex-client of department head for major contract
© Greg Nash

The Interior Department has proposed awarding one of the first permanent federal water contracts to an influential California district for which Interior Secretary David Bernhardt worked as a longtime lobbyist.

According to The Associated Press, the contract would go to the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water supplier in the nation. The district serves some of the U.S.'s wealthiest and most influential farmers.

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Bernhardt, who first joined Interior as a deputy secretary in 2017, was a lobbyist for the district until just the year before.

Conservation groups who are unhappy with the proposal are calling for more transparency regarding the financial terms of the contract as well as an environmental review of the deal, the AP reports.

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanHarris introduces bill to prevent California wildfires Overnight Energy: Fight between EPA watchdog, agency lawyers heats up | Top EPA official under investigation over document destruction | DOJ issues subpoenas to automakers in California emissions pact Interior suggests ex-client of department head for major contract MORE (D-Calif.) told the AP “the Interior Department needs to look out for the public interest, and not just serve the financial interests of their former lobbying clients."

Bernhardt's lobbyist history has drawn scrutiny from congressional Democrats and conservation groups, who have accused him of multiple conflict of interest, as many of the industries that Bernhardt lobbied for fall under Interior's jurisdiction.

For example, as a lobbyist in 2016, Bernhardt played an integral role in the passage of the federal law that made the proposed contract possible passed.

Interior spokeswoman Carol Danko said that the Westlands contract was completely delegated to California staffers from the Bureau of Reclamation, a subagency under Interior.

The law reportedly allows districts to lock up permanent water contracts from California’s federal water project as long as the district pays the federal government their share of the cost.  

Environmentalists who are critical of the contract say that it will allow California's water companies to skip future negotiations with environmental groups, which puts endangered species of wildlife and fish in danger.

If the contract is finalized after the public discussion period ends, Westlands would have unending access to enough water to service over 2 million California households.

Currently, Westlands owes the government $480.7 million for the Central Valley Project, a massive system of dams, tunnels and canals that supplies Southern California with water from Northern California. 

Danko said that the proposed deal would allow the federal government to recoup the money that it's owed 10 years earlier than scheduled. 

Also Friday, the California Attorney General's Office announced it had proposed a settlement with Westlands Water District, after allegations it illegally participated in a project to raise the height of a nearby dam, a move that could have hurt downriver fish. The proposed settlement would bar Westlands from any attempt to move forward with the project.

This comes after the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of Interior, in October moved forward with weakening protections for an imperiled fish, the delta smelt.

Rebecca Beitsch contributed reporting.