Republicans raise ethics complaints over Biden water policy

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 07/20/2021 03:34 PM EST

House Natural Resources ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) on Capitol Hill. Francis Chung/E&E News

Top Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee today accused a top Biden administration Interior official of running afoul of ethics rules when he reversed a Trump-era policy on California water.

Ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, questioned Interior Deputy Solicitor of Water Resources Daniel Cordalis’ role in overturning a memo signed by former Secretary David Bernhardt the day before President Biden took office.

The dispute concerns a complicated program that determines how much money contractors who receive water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project must pay into a restoration fund that goes to environmental mitigation — including to the Yurok Tribe on the Trinity River in Northern California.

Cordalis "leveraged his position as a political appointee to overrule a January 14, 2021 legal policy penned by nonpolitical career officials related to requirements under the [Central Valley Project Improvement Act]," Westerman and Gosar wrote in a letter to Interior ethics official Heather Gottry.

Bernhardt signed a memo on Jan. 19 establishing that under the 1992 law, certain mitigation benchmarks had been "completed," which lowered the ceiling on the amount of money contractors were required to pay for mitigation by millions of dollars.

The move was strongly criticized by local Native American tribes like the Hoopa Valley and Yurok, as well as Democratic lawmakers who said there was no way the mitigation requirements had been met. They pointed to continued declines in the river’s salmon runs and other water issues.

Further, they accused Bernhardt of catering to water interests, including the politically powerful Westlands Water District. The Rhode Island-sized district gets its water from the Central Valley Project and is a former client of Bernhardt’s. Bernhardt strongly pushed back on those assertions, saying the decision as "firmly grounded" in the text of the law and facts (Greenwire, July 1).

Westerman and Gosar now allege that a beneficiary of the latest policy change is the Yurok Tribe, which Cordalis represented in litigation against the Bureau of Reclamation during the Trump years while in private practice. They also note that Cordalis’ wife, Amy, is the tribe’s general counsel.

The Yurok Tribe "has a financial interest in the funding levels" available under the mitigation fund established in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

"The financial implications of his June 11, 2021 memorandum, particularly for the Yurok Tribe," they wrote, "call Mr. Cordalis’ compliance with President Biden’s standards into question."

An Interior spokesperson declined to comment.

Westerman and Gosar went on to call for Cordalis’ signed ethics pledge and his list of recusals and waivers provided by the department. They also sought information regarding his previous work for the Yurok Tribe.