Bernhardt at Interior = Fox Guarding the Henhouse
Today, the President nominated David Bernhardt to be Deputy Secretary of Interior, a position with enormous influence and authority over almost all of our shared public resources.
NRDC opposes this nomination, along with many of our fellow conservationists, fishing representatives, and good government groups. As the Center for Western Priorities recently put it, “David Bernhardt is a veritable poster boy for the revolving door in and out of … Washington.” After working in President Bush’s Interior Department as the top lawyer in charge of ethics during a period of scandal and scientific misconduct, he jumped to becoming the lawyer and lobbyist for the Westlands Water District in California, the notoriously anti-environmental water agency that serves some of the wealthiest corporate agricultural interests in the state.
While representing Westlands, Mr. Bernhardt sought to invalidate protections for endangered salmon in California's Bay-Delta so that his clients could export more federally subsidized water out of the beleaguered estuary. NRDC beat him in court because the law and science were on our side. Mr. Bernhardt was also counsel in a billion-dollar Westlands lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior—the very agency he’s been tapped to help lead—over the toxic drainage caused by Westlands’ landowners’ irrigation of selenium-tainted land. He lost that one too.
Mr. Bernhardt also lobbied Congress on behalf of Westlands, which was a chief proponent of efforts to undermine existing protections for water quality and fisheries in the Bay-Delta over the last several years in an attempt to increase water exports to its corporate interests. According to Open Secrets, Westlands paid Mr. Bernhardt's firm more than $300,000 in lobbying expenses in 2016 alone, and it has reportedly paid the firm more than $1 million in total over the past 5 years. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and California's Public Records Act show that Mr. Bernhardt played an active role in drafting legislation to overturn Endangered Species Act protections for salmon in the Bay-Delta.
In the role that President Trump nominated him to fill, Mr. Bernhardt would have direct and significant authority over how the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates the massive Central Valley Project in California—the source of most of Westlands’ water supply—and how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would implement protections for endangered and threatened fish in the Delta, as well as matters involving Westlands’ discharge of toxic irrigation drainage water. His recent positions on these matters indicate that he is likely to steer Interior away from the needed improvements in salmon protections, water quality, and river flows that the science and law supports. That's the opposite of what an agency with control over vast public resources needs.