Neighboring water deal reeks of cronyism

For decades, Nevada has fought to update the 1922-vintage Colorado River Compact so that our state can receive its fair allotment of water from the river.

Now comes news of a sketchy water deal in California that should spur us into action.

The Department of the Interior is proposing to award a highly coveted water supply contract to California’s Westlands Water District, which Interior Secretary David Bernhardt previously represented as a lobbyist.

This not only smacks of a conflict of interest, it has disturbing ramifications for Nevada’s water supply.

Westlands, which supplies a number of wealthy and politically powerful corporate farms in the San Joaquin Valley farm district, would receive an allotment of federally managed water in perpetuity under the proposed deal.

Landing the contract would be an enormous boon for Westlands — a way to lock up 1.15 million acre-feet of water annually for as long as the water supply exists. It’s a huge supply, about three times Nevada’s allotment from the Colorado River and more than twice the amount of water used by the city of Los Angeles in 2018.

For Westlands, getting the contract would offer protection from the diminishment of regional water supplies due to climate change. Critics argue contracts should be redone on a regular basis and based on the available supply.

The critics are right.

Why would Nevada agree to give such an enormous amount of water to any one district for all time? Why should one area get an oceanliner while others are in rowboats?

To be clear, Nevada wouldn’t be directly affected by the Westlands contract, which applies to systems benefited by an infrastructure network that pipes water from Northern California to the south. But the dynamics of water in the West are such that what affects one system often affects another.

Southern California’s water agencies, which rely heavily on the Colorado River, want more water from Northern California. Therefore, allowing Westlands to lock up a vast amount of the water piped in from the North threatens to increase the South’s demand on the Colorado River as the population there grows.

That’s where Nevada comes in. The state has a tiny allotment under the seven-state compact, which was based on state populations. Nevada’s population — the whole state’s — was about 80,000 at the time.

But as the state grew, we’ve been battling to increase our share to reflect the current population ratios. Meanwhile, we’ve helped stretch our allotment through conservation efforts.

That’s why Nevada’s entire congressional delegation should look into this proposed Westlands contract.

This has all the appearances of a sweetheart deal.

Watchdog groups have been howling about it ever since Westlands got the proposed contract, becoming the first of about 70 interested entities to reach a tentative deal.

“Westlands Water District has used its outsized influence with Secretary Bernhardt to jump over other people to acquire water rights and guarantees that they shouldn’t get like this,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of California water conservation group Restore the Delta, to Roll Call. “Bernhardt is like Santa Claus, handing out goodies to his former client.”

The Interior Department claimed Bernhardt was not involved in negotiating the contract, but the optics of the situation strongly suggest Westlands got preferential treatment regardless of whether Bernhardt was directly working on the deal.

He’d certainly helped lay the groundwork for it, working as a lobbyist to pass elements of a 2016 congressional action that paved the way for the deal. That action allowed reclamation contractors to obtain permanent contracts in return for repaying debts for construction of the Central Valley Project.

Westlands' deal isn’t over the finish line yet. It will be subject to a 60-day public comment session that ends in early January, then must be finalized.

It’s critical to speak out against the contract, which can be done by emailing comments to [email protected] In tandem, our leadership needs to look into the situation at the congressional level.

Water is the most precious resource anywhere and anytime, but especially here and now at a time of prolonged drought. We have to fight to protect it.