The Revolving Door: Senate Confirms Former MWD Official As Reclamation Commissioner

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On November 16, the U.S. Senate confirmed Brenda Burman, who served as a Department of Interior official under President G.W. Bush and later as special projects manager for the Metropolitan Water District MWD of Southern California, as the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner.

MWD, along with Stewart and Lynda Resnick of the Wonderful Company and other corporate agribusiness interests, is one of the key proponents of the California WaterFix project, a controversial proposal to build two massive 35 mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“Finally! After more than 142 days, I’m excited to welcome Brenda Burman to lead the Bureau of Reclamation,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in a statement. “Brenda is a veteran of the Bureau and her extensive experience on water projects across the country will be an incredible asset for the Department. After senseless and unprecedented hold-ups in the Senate, we can finally move forward with key water projects across the country.”

Zinke recently accused Senate Democrats of holding four Trump adminstration Interior nominees “hostage” to a political agenda that includes opposition to his review of presidentially designated monuments:

Senator Richard Durbin had placed holds on Berman and three other Interior nominees, including Susan Combs, nominated as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget; Joseph Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management; Ryan Nelson, solicitor.

“I am deeply honored for the opportunity to lead this organization,” said Brenda Burman after being confirmed.  “The employees of Reclamation are dedicated to working through the most difficult water issues and managing water in the West. I look forward to working with Secretary Zinke, the Administration, and our many partners, contractors and customers to solve our most pressing water issues.”

Roger K. Patterson, Assistant General Manager for the Metropolitan Water District of California, Burman’s former employer, praised Trump’s choice for Reclamation Commissioner on June 27 in a statement.

“As someone who has over 10 years experience as a Regional Director with Bureau of Reclamation in two separate Regions, I have seen what it takes to succeed as Commissioner,” said Patterson. “Without a doubt, Brenda has the experience, skills, energy and vision to be a successful. I’m excited about the work she will do and I wish her the best.”

After her confirmation, Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) Executive Director Timothy Quinn gushed, “ACWA enthusiastically supports the confirmation of Brenda Burman as commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.”

“Brenda brings decades of water policy expertise to her new role. Having served as director of water policy for Arizona’s Salt River Project and as a special projects manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Brenda also has a keen understanding of the myriad of issues facing water managers in the West,” he said.

For those not familiar with the agency, the Bureau of Reclamation is the largest wholesale provider of water in the country. It delivers water to more than 31 million people and provides one out of five western farmers with irrigation water for farmland that produces much of the nation’s produce. Reclamation is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the western United States.

Reclamation is also the partner with the California Department of Water Resources in the planning, construction and operation of the Delta Tunnels, a project that would cost anywhere from $18 billion to $68 billion while providing not one drop of new water. Tunnels opponents consider the project to be potentially the most environmentally destructive public works project in U.S. history.

Brenda Burman is the first-ever woman to lead the Bureau. From 2006 to 2008 under the G.W. Bush administration, she served as Reclamation’s Deputy Commissioner for External and Intergovernmental Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary.

Before her current stint at Interior, Burman served as the Director of Water Policy for Arizona’s Salt River Project. From 2011 to 2015, Burman worked as the special project manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, “the largest water provider in the country.”

She also worked for The Nature Conservancy as senator water policy administrator and U.S. Senator Jon Kyl. For more information on Burman’s background, go here:…

Burman’s appointment comes at a critical time for Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels project. On October 25, a Trump administration official issued contradictory statements about continued federal support for the California Water Fix.

After an administration official first said the administration didn’t support the Delta Tunnels, he later that day said the Department of Interior would continue supporting the project but wouldn’t provide funding for it.

Interior deputy communications director Russell Newell first told Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press that “the Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward” with the project to build two giant tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

When asked if this meant that the Trump administration opposed the California WaterFix project, Newell said, “Yes.”

After the AP story was published, Newell that afternoon issued a statement “clarifying” Interior’s position on the Delta Tunnels, backing off from the position taken earlier, and stating that the agency “does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the CA WaterFix.”

“While the Department of the Interior shares the goals of the state of California to deliver water with more certainty, eliminating risks to the California water supply, and improving the environment, at this time, the Department under the current state proposal does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the CA WaterFix. The Department and Reclamation will continue to work with the state and stakeholders as the project is further developed,” the department said.

The two conflicting statements by the Trump administration come in response to the previous day’s request by Huffman and five other House Democrats for a new federal investigation of the funding for Brown’s proposed tunnels project. That request follows the Inspector General’s audit of funding for the project.

Led by Representatives Huffman and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the Natural Resources Committee’s Ranking Member, the six House Democrats called on the GAO to open a “new investigation into the misuse of taxpayer funds” by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation. California Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), and Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) also signed the letter sent to the  Comptroller General of the United States, Gene L. Dodaro.

“In its September audit, the Interior Department’s Inspector General found that the Bureau of Reclamation improperly subsidized the planning process for the California WaterFix project, also known as the ‘Delta Tunnels,’” according to a statement from Huffman’s Office. “The audit identified at least $84 million in taypayer funds spent without disclosure to Congress as required by law, and kept hidden from other water users, stakeholders, and the public.”

You can read the full piece on the Representatives’ call for a probe here:

Six Trump administration nominees still await confirmation, including Joe Balash for Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, Susan Combs for Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management, & Budget, Ryan Nelson for Solicitor, newly nominated Tim Petty for Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, Tara Sweeney for Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, and Steven Gardner for Director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, according to Zinke’s Office.