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Top Leader at Interior Dept. Pushes a Policy Favoring His Former Client

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A spokesman for the Westlands, Johnny Amaral, declined a request to interview district officials.

If the protections on the fish were lifted, Westlands would not be the only beneficiary — water would also flow to surrounding water districts. But because of a quirk in California law, Westlands would likely be the main beneficiary, according to Jeffrey Mount, a water management expert with the Public Policy Institute of California. That’s because river water in California is distributed according to a longstanding first-come-first-served system, and Westlands is low on the list.

“Westlands is the most penalized under the current system,” Mr. Mount said. “But if the protections on the fish are relaxed, they will be one of the biggest winners.”

Mr. Bernhardt disagrees. “It’s a massive project,” he said of the broad Central Valley system for distributing water to farmers. “It’s 400 miles of project. The coordinated operations involve 25 million people. These are big, big policy things.”

Mr. Bernhardt said his actions reflected Mr. Trump’s broader agenda of helping rural America, including a campaign pledge to deliver water to all the Central Valley farmers. “The president does have a policy that he wants us to deliver water more efficiently, and it’s good policy.” he said. “I don’t believe for a minute that I’m doing things to benefit Westlands. I’m doing things to benefit America.”

In 2011 the farmers of Westlands hired Mr. Bernhardt, who worked for the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. During his five years as lobbyist and lawyer for the district, it paid his firm at least $1.3 million in lobbying fees, his disclosure reports show.

For Westlands, Mr. Bernhardt said he lobbied Congress on a broad water infrastructure bill, but his lobbying was focused on one specific section of the bill: a provision to weaken smelt and salmon protections, and divert water to the Central Valley farmers. That bill passed, but it resulted in the release of only small amounts of river water for irrigation in Westlands, and will do so only through 2021.

Weakening the underlying Endangered Species Act protections would free up much more water.

In 2014, Mr. Bernhardt, on behalf of Westlands, joined a legal petition asking the Supreme Court to take up a case seeking to weaken or lift Endangered Species Act protections on the delta smelt. The same year, he made oral arguments in a case that pitted Westlands and a half-dozen other California water districts against the federal government and sought to weaken Endangered Species protections on the winter-run Chinook salmon.

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