Politics & Government

Trump taps ex-California water lobbyist for Cabinet. Critics call him a ‘swamp creature’

President Donald Trump on Monday nominated David Bernhardt, the former top lobbyist for a powerful Fresno-based irrigation district, to run the Department of the Interior, raising renewed questions about whether he’d try to steer more California water to his former clients.

Trump announced Bernhardt’s nomination to become Interior secretary on Twitter.

“David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!” Trump tweeted.

Bernhardt has been deputy secretary since early in the Trump administration, and became acting secretary after Ryan Zinke resigned in December under an ethical cloud.

Bernhardt is a former lobbyist for Westlands Water District, which serves farmers in Fresno and Kings counties and is one of the most influential customers of the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

Bernhardt is widely seen among environmentalists and state officials as leading the Trump administration’s controversial efforts to pump more water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Westlands growers and other Valley farmers. Critics say the extra pumping could put more pressure on endangered fish species in the Delta.

Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham declined comment on Bernhardt’s nomination, but environmentalists were quick to criticize.

“Bernhardt is an ex-lobbyist and the ultimate DC-swamp creature with so many potential conflicts of interest that he has to carry around a list of his former clients,” said Chris Saeger of the Western Values Project, an environmental group based in Montana.

“Bernhardt might as well be an ideological clone of Ryan Zinke,” said Ana Unruh Cohen of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She called Bernhardt “another industry shill who will continue to sell our precious natural resources to the highest bidders for exploitation.”

After joining the Trump administration in 2017, Bernhardt recused himself from dealing with matters related to Westlands and other former clients. The recusal expired last summer, however, about the time the Interior Department accelerated its efforts to promote water deliveries to Valley farmers.

“My sense is that Mr. Bernhardt has been personally and intimately involved in rolling back protections for endangered species in the Delta for quite some time,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

While serving as Westlands’ lobbyist, he sued the Interior Department and helped write legislation on behalf of his client.

Documents obtained by California environmental advocate Patricia Schifferle show he helped write amendments to a $558 million water bill, approved by Congress in December 2016, that steers more water to Westlands and other water districts and eases construction of new dams.

Largely because of his services, Westlands has paid Bernhardt and his law firm $1.27 million since 2011.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of the local activist group Restore the Delta said Bernhardt was one of the key figures who worked behind the scenes to promote a false narrative of “fish versus farmers” when it came to how the state’s water supply is divvied up.

“It’s a tough day for the Delta,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “He’s never been a friend of the Bay Delta estuary.”