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Interior proposes coveted deal to ex-client of agency head

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Interior Department is proposing to award one of the first contracts for federal water in perpetuity to a powerful rural California water district that had long employed Secretary David Bernhardt as a lobbyist.

Conservation groups are demanding fuller disclosure of financial terms and an environmental review of the proposed deal for the California’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier. The water district serves some of country’s wealthiest and most politically influential corporate farmers.

Bernhardt served as a lobbyist for Westlands until 2016, the year before he joined Interior, initially as deputy secretary.

“The Interior Department needs to look out for the public interest, and not just serve the financial interests of their former lobbying clients,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California.

Responding to questions, Interior spokeswoman Carol Danko said the handling of the Westlands’ contract was delegated entirely to California staffers of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is under the Department of Interior. The agency will make a final decision after the legally mandated public comment period, she said.

Doug Obegi, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the handling of the contract raises concerns Interior “is trying to give Westlands a sweetheart deal.”