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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Candidate for Interior Department Fought for Corporate Water Rights in California


David Bernhardt is rumored to be a candidate for Deputy Secretary of the Interior. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team, serving as the head on Interior Department issues. He also worked at Interior from 2001 to 2009.

Bernhardt also worked as an attorney for the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and served as co-chair of its natural resources department. The law firm would earn 200,000 shares of stock in resources company Cadiz, worth about $3 million, if the company is able to complete a water pipeline project in the Mojave desert, according to a 2016 SEC filing.

Los Angeles-based Cadiz has plans to sell water from an aquifer in the Mojave desert. The company owns 34,000 acres in the Cadiz and Fenner valleys, close to the Mojave National Preserve, and proposes to pump up to 50,000 acre-feet, or 16 billion gallons, of groundwater a year for 50 years.

The company would sell the water, which would travel in a 43-mile pipeline from the company’s property to the Colorado River Aqueduct to Southern California agencies. The pipeline will be “buried underground within an active railroad right-of-way that crosses the project area and the aqueduct,” the company wrote on its website.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued guidelines in a 2014 memorandum stating the federal agency would evaluate each proposed use of lands granted to railroad companies to see if the project would “derive from or further a railroad purpose.”

In 2015, James Kenna, the BLM’s state director, wrote in a letter that Cadiz’s plans to build the pipeline fall outside the rights granted by an 1875 law giving the land to the Arizona and California Railroad. That put a brake on the Cadiz pipeline.

The Trump administration recently rescinded those rules, stating on the BLM’s website that “field offices will no longer apply the provisions outlined” in the guidelines.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) issued a statement vowing to “fight this latest effort to push the Cadiz water project through without the proper environmental review.”

In a statement, the senator argued that while the U.S. Geological Survey said the recharge rate in the project area is fewer than 5,000 acre-feet a year and the National Park Service puts it at 4,650 to 7,750 acre-feet a year, Cadiz claimed the area can replenish 32,000 acre-feet annually. 

Courtney Degener, a spokesperson for Cadiz, emailed us to respond to Senator Feinstein's allegations:

While Cadiz Inc. does state that natural recharge is 32,500 acre-feet per year, this number is not hearsay, but actually supported by fact, review and permitting, and based on site specific data, such as field measurements of evaporation. This data was peer reviewed by independent scientists, incorporated into a public review process, then approved by two public agencies and upheld in Court.

Bernhardt and Central California’s unsustainable Westlands Water District

And that's not the only thing about Bernhardt that raises red flags for some. He also represented the Westlands Water District in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It's the largest agricultural water district in the U.S. and is comprised of over 1,000 square miles of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties. The water Westlands farmers use to irrigate their fields comes from the Sacramento Delta.

Back in 2015, the water district secured water rights, which it first obtained back in 1963, in perpetuity. And as Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, “It was all done in secret.”

Westlands owed $350 million to the federal government, the water district's share of the cost of the Central Valley Project which brings water from the Delta. The 2015 deal with the feds erases the debt and puts the burden on the district to dispose of agricultural waste in a safe manner.

Not everyone is happy with the deal. It gives the Westlands permanent rights up to 850,000 acre-feet of water, about 150 percent of the annual water use of Los Angeles, the second most populated city in the U.S.

Westlands inked the deal during one of the worst droughts in California’s history. Much of the state's agricultural production would not be possible without irrigation. Accounting for almost 20 percent of the nation’s irrigated cropland, California grows about half of the produce in the U.S. About 80 percent of water diverted from rivers or pumped groundwater reserves in the golden state is used for agriculture. And about 75 percent of rainfall occurs north of Sacramento while most of the farmland and the population is in the central and southern parts of the state.

It’s a system that is not sustainable. And neither is the Trump administration’s regard for corporate profits over the environment.

Bernhardt already served on the Trump transition team and may just end up back in the Interior Department. His impact is already being felt. Expect more bad decisions that impact water supplies. 

As Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, told TriplePundit: “If David Bernhardt’s history of carrying water for powerful special interests wasn’t enough to disqualify him from working at Interior, the questions raised by this series of events should put him out of the running altogether.”

He added that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s “claims of being a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist will be a sad joke if he picks this kind of Washington insider to be his right-hand man.”

Image credit: Flickr/Ericka Ekstrom

This article has been updated since it was first published.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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