Former federal judge in water fights now represents Westlands

Former U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger, who spent two decades as a jurist deep in the Central Valley, is shaping up as something of a courtroom nemesis for environmentalists. And he’s not even on the bench.

Wanger, who has ruled on numerous water cases, retired at the end of September – but not before he blasted the government’s environmental assessments of flows and fresh water in a case involving Delta smelt protections. Wanger’s sharp language, in which he denounced experts from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service, drew national attention.

The Westlands Water District, the nation’s premier farm irrigation district and a major political player in the Central Valley, sought more flows south from the Delta; the government’s position would have limited them. In the end, Wanger’s decision was favorable to Westlands.

And that would have been that, except that Wanger has now surfaced less than two months after his earlier decision as an attorney in a state case representing – you guessed it – Westlands.

Wanger was listed in a routine court filing on Nov. 22 in Fresno County Superior Court as an attorney representing Westlands in a state case against pitting the district against environmental groups and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. Wanger and representatives of his law firm were identified as the new lawyers representing Westlands, replacing the district’s own staff attorneys. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is also a defendant.

There is nothing illegal or improper about Wanger entering private practice. But the perception of a federal judge leaving the bench to quickly turn up as the lawyer for an entity that has come before him numerous times over the years raises eyebrows.

As for the outspoken Wanger, he went to public events just after stepping down. He went on the speaking circuit, addressing a south state water group’s dinner and fundraiser and appearing at an Oct. 11 fund-raiser for a candidate to the Fresno County board of supervisors. The latter event was his first presentation since leaving the bench, according to the candidate. He does not appear concerned about the latest flap over his new role as Westlands lawyer.

“I would love to hear what Westlands would say if we had hired [Wanger],” Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, told the Fresno Bee’s John Ellis. That would be fine with him, Wanger said.

“I’d love to work for them,” he said, including environmental groups and the federal government in his list of prospective clients.

In September, shortly before he retired, Wanger said FWS scientist Jennifer Norris “has not been honest this court. I find her to be incredible as a witness. I find her testimony to be that of a zealot. And I’m not overstating the case. I’m not being histrionic. I’m not being dramatic. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I’ve seen a few witnesses testify.”

He also said of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Frederick Feyrer, he showed “absolute incredibility” and “absolute unreliability,” and “finally, the most significant finding, the court finds him to be untrustworthy as a witness.”  His language – it was part of a lengthy diatribe – surprised legal observers for its intensity. The Department of the Interior, meanwhile, is investigating the judge’s allegations.

Norris and Feyrer did not comment on Wanger’s statements, but at the time the Interior Department through a spokesman defended the scientists’ work, calling it “consistent and thorough.”

The underlying issue of the case was the government’s plan to tap the Sacramento River to retain some fresh water supplies in the Delta, rather than let it be shipped south, a move that by some estimates could cut water to San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts by some 300,000 acre-feet, perhaps more. Wanger blocked the move, at least temporarily.  

The Delta, an estuary fed by several rivers, is at the heart of California’s water system and provides about half the state’s drinking water.

Ed’s Note: This story also appeared in California Water Wars at

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