Statement re. David Bernhardt’s Potential Appointment to the Department of the Interior

April 26, 2017

Today, the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which represents sport and commercial salmon fishermen and women and related businesses along California’s coast and rivers, issued the following statement by John McManus, GGSA’s Executive Director:

“The Golden Gate Salmon Association is opposed to the potential appointment of David Bernhardt as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior.”

For many years, Mr. Bernhardt has served as a lobbyist and litigator for the Westlands Water District, the largest federal water contractor in the nation.

“Westlands has spent decades attacking salmon protections and, by extension, the tens of thousands of California fishing jobs tied to salmon,” said McManus.

On behalf of Westlands, Mr. Bernhardt was deeply involved in drafting legislation, which passed at the end of 2016 that weakened federal protections for salmon. In coming years, federal agencies, particularly the Department of the Interior where he wants to work, will make decisions regarding implementing that bill. Westlands will, no doubt, lobby Interior to use that legislation to increase water diversions from the San Francisco Bay-Delta which will further weaken salmon protections. An even more dramatic legislative assault on salmon (H.R. 23), which Bernhardt helped craft, was introduced by Congressman Valadao in January. The Westlands Water District is pushing this bill and, if it moves forward, Interior will be asked to take a position.

Mr. Bernhardt also represented Westlands in courtroom attacks on federal Endangered Species Act protections for salmon and other imperiled native fish species. Had he succeeded, some salmon runs might now be extinct.

In addition, Westlands is currently working to pass legislation (H.R. 1769), which will be heard by the House Committeee on Natural Resources tomorrow. That bill would authorize a sweetheart deal with the Bureau of Reclamation to settle litigation regarding contamination discharged into the San Joaquin River from land in Westlands that is irrigated with water from the federal Central Valley Project. That settlement is worth approximately $300 million to Mr. Bernhardt’s former clients.

It strains credibility to suggest that Mr. Bernhardt, were he to be appointed, would refrain from occupying himself with these and other key departmental decisions that he has spent the last decade working to influence. In fact, those seeking his appointment are almost certainly counting on him to weigh in on their behalf.

Westlands is not new to political interference with the work of federal agencies responsible for the protection of the San Francisco Bay-Delta and salmon. During the administration of George H.W. Bush, salmon fishermen watched as political manipulation prevented the best science from being used to protect ESA listed species in the Bay-Delta, including species of salmon. Interior’s own Inspector General concluded that the resulting biological opinion, issued in 2004, was the result of political interference. That biological opinion was overturned by the courts, resulting in a new opinion in 2009 with stronger protections. Westlands and Mr. Bernhardt have fought ever since to weaken them.

The revolving door between Westlands and Interior was spinning rapidly during the Bush years. Julie McDonald and Craig Manson went to work for Westlands after they left federal agencies. Ms. McDonald in particular was deeply involved in the political interference with the work of Interior biologists and resigned following the disclosure of that interference.

Finally, in recent weeks, the media has covered a decision by Interior that benefits the Cadiz water project, which is represented by Brownstein Hyatt, the law firm at which Mr. Bernhardt is a senior partner. It is important to note that Mr. Bernhardt has served as the Department of the Interior transition chair for the Trump Administration.

As the new administration makes appointments to key positions at Interior and the Department of Commerce, it is essential that we learn from this history. Fishermen have no desire to repeat it.