Editorials

Nunes and Valadao joke about Westlands’ water grab. We’re not laughing.

Rep. Devin Nunes’ cupcakes from Rep. David Valadao, riffing on endangered fish.
Rep. Devin Nunes’ cupcakes from Rep. David Valadao, riffing on endangered fish. Twitter

Rep. Devin Nunes’ tweet was supposed to be funny, we guess.

The occasion was the passage of H.R. 23, carried by fellow San Joaquin Valley Republican, Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, although its authorship is clearly at issue.

The bill is the House Republicans’ latest attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s expense, and at the behest of the Westlands Water District, the sprawling irrigation district where some of the state’s wealthiest farmers tend their crops.

Upon the bill’s passage, Nunes tweeted a photo of five cupcakes, four of which were topped with fish-shaped gummy candies. Perhaps he ate the fifth or maybe he threw it away. Whatever the gummy’s fate, the Tulare politician’s tweet thanked Valadao “for sending this excellent gift: smelt-themed cupcakes.”

In the sheltered offices of Congress, where Republicans talk to Republicans about burdens imposed by environmental law on their donors, Nunes’ tweet must have been a hoot. We like a laugh as much as the next person, but forgive us for feeling as if Sacramento is the butt of this particular joke.

Here in the Sacramento River Valley, the environment matters. Some of us care that the Delta smelt, humble though it is, teeters near extinction. We worry about what that portends for other species that depend on the Delta.

Thanks to hard-nosed reporting by Lance Williams and Matt Smith of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, we now know that Westlands Water District officials and Westlands’ then-attorney, David L. Bernhardt, helped shape Valadao’s legislation.

In April, President Donald Trump nominated Bernhardt to be No. 2 in the U.S. Interior Department. The Senate has confirmed him over the objections of California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Harris, Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown have denounced Valadao’s bill.

“Commandeering our laws for purposes defined in Washington is not right,” Brown wrote in a July 10 letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, to no avail. Two days after Brown sent the letter, the House approved the bill on a near party-line vote. All 14 Republicans in California’s congressional delegation voted for it, as did Fresno Democrat Jim Costa.

Bernhardt was a partner in Westlands’ Washington, D.C., lobbying and law firm, Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Schreck, but assured senators in a confirmation hearing earlier this year that he had stopped lobbying for Westlands in November.

He may not have contacted legislators or members of the executive branch on Westlands’ behalf related to H.R. 23, the definition of lobbying. But Bernhardt, a lawyer, provided the district with legal advice on that bill and related issues up to the time of his nomination, according to emails cited by Reveal and obtained by Public Records Act requests by Patricia Schifferle. Schifferle, who opposes the tunnels, consults for the Planning and Conservation League.

Those emails detail the extent of Westlands’ involvement in the legislation. In an email dated Dec. 13, an aide to Valadao sent a draft of what became H.R. 23 to several insiders including Westlands officials, and asked for “any edits you would like us to make.”

The resulting legislation would roll back legal restrictions controlling water exports by more than 20 years, and preempt and override state environmental law. The legislation could give the U.S. Interior secretary greater power to big-foot California officials’ ability to allocate water for Central Valley farmers, in other words, Westlands.

Tom Birmingham, Westlands general manager, told an editorial board member that if the bill were approved, about a million more acre-feet of delta water would become available annually on average, on top of the roughly 4.9 million acre-feet exported now to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Westlands would gain about 30 percent more water, Birmingham estimated.

From Brown’s point of view, the timing of H.R. 23 could not be worse.

In the coming months, the governor hopes to gain approval of the major recipients of Delta water for the $15.5 billion twin tunnel project to divert water from the Sacramento River in the Delta 30 miles south to the massive pumps near Tracy.

The governor contends that the tunnels are not intended to export more Sacramento River water to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Rather, he and his scientists say, the tunnels would provide greater reliability of water exports, while enabling the state to improve the deteriorating Delta environment.

It’s a tough sell, under the best of circumstances.

As Brown told Ryan in the letter: “Undermining state law is especially unwise today as California, with input from all stakeholders, is poised to make its boldest water infrastructure investments in decades, updating an antiquated delta water conveyance, and adopting water-use efficiency targets.” It evidently didn’t matter to Ryan, and certainly not to Valadao and Nunes.

The U.S. Senate may not approve the Valadao-Westlands water bill over the objections of Feinstein and Harris, and the governor. But that H.R. 23 has cleared one house illustrates the greedy side of California’s water politics. It is unseemly, counterproductive and no laughing matter, not even in this age of Twitter.

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