In­te­rior chief pushes dam project that old lob­by­ing client wanted

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY CORAL DAVEN­PORT

For years, the In­te­rior Depart­ment re­sisted pro­pos­als to raise the height of its tow­er­ing Shasta Dam in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The depart­ment’s own sci­en­tists and re­searchers con­cluded that do­ing so would en­dan­ger rare plants and an­i­mals in the area, as well as the bald ea­gle, and dev­as­tate the West Coast’s salmon in­dus­try down­stream.

But the project is go­ing for­ward now, in a big win for a pow­er­ful con­sor­tium of Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers that stands to profit sub­stan­tially by gain­ing ac­cess to more ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter from a higher dam and has been try­ing to get the project ap­proved for more than a decade.

For much of the past decade, the chief lob­by­ist for the group was David Bern­hardt. To­day, Bern­hardt is the in­te­rior sec­re­tary.

It is not the first time that the In­te­rior Depart­ment un­der Bern­hardt’s lead­er­ship has taken ac­tions that ben­e­fit his for­mer client, the West­lands Wa­ter Dis­trict, a state en­tity cre­ated at the be­hest of, and largely con­trolled by, some of Cal­i­for­nia’s wealth­i­est farm­ers. Bern­hardt also pro­moted the weak­en­ing of an en­dan­gered-species reg­u­la­tion that would get West­lands more wa­ter, a move that has put him un­der scru­tiny from his depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral.

The Shasta is al­ready one of the tallest dams in the na­tion, and pre­lim­i­nary work has be­gun to raise its height by 18.5 feet. That would al­low it to hold about 14% more wa­ter, and the 1,000 or so Cen­tral Val­ley farm­ers that West­lands rep­re­sents would re­ceive more than any­one else.

“Prior to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, this project was dead,” said Jeffrey Mount, a wa­ter man­age­ment ex­pert with the Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia. “Now it’s com­ing to life. And West­lands would be the No. 1 win­ner here.”

Un­der Bern­hardt’s lead­er­ship, the In­te­rior Depart­ment has dis­re­garded its own sci­en­tific and le­gal anal­y­sis show­ing that rais­ing the Shasta not only would be en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing and cost-pro­hib­i­tive but also would also be il­le­gal un­der Cal­i­for­nia law. Cal­i­for­nia’s at­tor­ney gen­eral is su­ing to stop it.

This year, the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice was told to pre­pare a new en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view of the project, but this one will be much more limited in scope, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the plans, who re­quested anonymity out of fear of ret­ri­bu­tion. The new plan would not an­a­lyze the ef­fects on salmon habi­tat down­stream or the ef­fects on sev­eral rare species.

Ex­clud­ing re­view of the dam’s down­stream ef­fects is “like an­a­lyz­ing the im­pact of a loaded pis­tol with­out look­ing past the nose of the bar­rel,” said Jon Rosen­field, a bi­ol­o­gist at San Fran­cisco Bay­keeper, a con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion. The ef­fects of stor­ing more wa­ter be­hind the dam “are ma­jor and ex­tend all the way down to San Fran­cisco Bay,” he said.

The In­te­rior Depart­ment is also pur­su­ing a deal, long sought by West­lands, whereby West­lands would help pay for the work to heighten the dam.

William Reilly, who ran the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency in the Ge­orge H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, said the cred­i­bil­ity of en­vi­ron­men­tal de­ci­sions “al­ways rests on good sci­ence.” The de­ci­sion to raise the Shasta Dam is an ex­am­ple of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dis­re­gard­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence when mak­ing pol

icy, he said.

“When you see a pat­tern of not ac­cept­ing sci­en­tific opin­ion, you lose trust in what the govern­ment has done, and it’s very hard to get that back,” Reilly said.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ethics pledge re­quires for­mer lob­by­ists to re­cuse them­selves for two years from work­ing on any spe­cific is­sue area in­volv­ing a par­tic­u­lar party on which or for whom they lob­bied in the two years be­fore join­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The In­te­rior Depart­ment’s ethics of­fice said it had re­viewed Bern­hardt’s past lob­by­ing for a law re­lated to the Shasta Dam and con­cluded be­fore his ap­point­ment that the law “was not a par­tic­u­lar mat­ter or spe­cific is­sue area.” As a re­sult, it said, the ethics pledge did not pro­hibit him from de­ci­sions about the dam, un­less they were on is­sues that were “a par­tic­u­lar mat­ter” in­volv­ing his for­mer client.

Bern­hardt did not re­spond to de­tailed writ­ten ques­tions.

Bern­hardt’s spokesman, Ni­cholas Good­win, said, “Sec­re­tary Bern­hardt is and has al­ways been com­mit­ted to up­hold­ing his eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and he has fully com­plied with those obli­ga­tions.”

Thomas Birm­ing­ham, the gen­eral man­ager of West­lands Wa­ter Dis­trict, said Bern­hardt hadn’t lob­bied specif­i­cally on the is­sue of the en­large­ment of the Shasta Dam.

Bern­hardt was ap­pointed by Trump in 2017 as the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s deputy sec­re­tary. This year, he rose to the top job af­ter his pre­de­ces­sor, Ryan Zinke, re­signed fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of eth­i­cal mis­con­duct.

Zinke’s res­ig­na­tion was one of sev­eral high-level de­par­tures from the ad­min­is­tra­tion amid ethics scan­dals. Trump’s first pick to lead the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, Scott Pruitt, re­signed last year amid fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions into sus­pected im­proper ac­tiv­i­ties. He, too was suc­ceeded by a for­mer lob­by­ist, An­drew Wheeler, who pre­vi­ously had rep­re­sented coal com­pa­nies.

Pruitt and Zinke have de­nied wrong­do­ing.

The 602-foot Shasta Dam tames the Sacra­mento River 200 miles north of San Fran­cisco. Built by the In­te­rior Depart­ment from 1938 to 1945, it cap­tures the an­nual snowmelt from Mount Shasta, cre­at­ing a vast reser­voir that an­chors Cal­i­for­nia’s fed­er­ally op­er­ated ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, rout­ing wa­ter from the state’s ver­dant north to the al­mond and pis­ta­chio farms of its arid Cen­tral Val­ley.

To­day, how­ever, Cal­i­for­nia is suf­fer­ing dire wa­ter short­ages. For years, wa­ter de­mand has in­creased but sup­ply has fallen as the warm­ing cli­mate di­min­ishes Mount Shasta’s snow­pack. West­lands, the state’s largest agri­cul­tural wa­ter user, has for decades pressed state and fed­eral law­mak­ers for changes to pro­vide it with more wa­ter.

Op­po­nents of rais­ing the Shasta say that, among other things, it would vi­o­late state law pro­hibit­ing con­struc­tion that harms pris­tine wa­ter­ways such as the McCloud River, which drains into Lake Shasta.

“It is ex­plic­itly against Cal­i­for­nia law,” said Mount of the Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute. “The fed­eral govern­ment needs a per­mit from the state in or­der to en­large the Shasta.”

Ma­jor con­cerns about the Shasta Dam have come from the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s own sci­en­tists, lawyers and econ­o­mists. In Novem­ber 2015, staff bi­ol­o­gists at the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice con­cluded in a 215-page re­port that rais­ing the dam “would re­sult in the loss, degra­da­tion, and frag­men­ta­tion of habi­tat” in and around Shasta Lake and the Sacra­mento River, and through­out the San Fran­cisco Bay Delta.

The re­port said the project would harm the habi­tat of many species, in­clud­ing not only the bald ea­gle but also the north­ern spot­ted owl and the Shasta snow-wreath, a del­i­cate white flower. A higher dam would also cut off one of the main routes used by salmon to spawn by re­duc­ing the flow of wa­ter down­stream. That could shrink the Pa­cific Coast salmon pop­u­la­tion, the re­port said, which sci­en­tists and fish­er­men say could dev­as­tate the West Coast salmon fish­ing in­dus­try.

“That Fish and Wildlife re­port tells us that rais­ing the dam would choke the life out of the Sacra­mento River, and what that means for the West Coast salmon in­dus­try I shud­der to think,” said John McManus, pres­i­dent of the Golden Gate Salmon As­so­ci­a­tion.

For th­ese rea­sons, the re­port con­cluded that Fish and Wildlife was “un­able to sup­port” rais­ing the dam. A sep­a­rate In­te­rior Depart­ment re­port, in July 2015, found that rais­ing the dam would also be too costly, at roughly $1.5 bil­lion, given bud­get con­straints.

Nei­ther re­port has been pub­licly up­dated with new find­ings.


A fal­lowed field is seen in the West­lands Wa­ter Dis­trict, in Cal­i­for­nia, on June 12, 2015. For years, the In­te­rior Depart­ment re­sisted pro­pos­als to raise the height of its tow­er­ing Shasta Dam in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. But the project is go­ing for­ward now, in a big win for a pow­er­ful con­sor­tium of Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers that stands to profit sub­stan­tially by gain­ing ac­cess to more ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter from a higher dam and has been try­ing to get the project ap­proved for more than a decade.


David Bern­hardt was the chief lob­by­ist for a con­sor­tium of Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers. To­day, he is the in­te­rior sec­re­tary.

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