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Meet Interior's new water lawyer Daniel Cordalis

Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E News reporter, Greenwire March 11, 2021

A young, driven policy wonk on tribal water rights who repeatedly sued the Interior Department during the Trump years has joined the agency in the Biden administration.

Daniel Cordalis joined Interior as deputy solicitor for water, a key position in shaping the agency's legal strategy, the Biden administration announced in late February.

Cordalis, 42, is a member of the Navajo Nation and took Interior's Bureau of Reclamation to court multiple times during the Trump administration on behalf of the Yurok Tribe of Northern California.

Those who know and have worked with Cordalis describe him as thoughtful, quiet and focused on tribal water issues. They welcomed Cordalis' addition to the Biden administration, saying it is a welcome change from the Trump era even if it means they'll be going up against him in court.

"Having people in those positions that understand tribes and tribal water rights and the history that comes along with them is a significant benefit, we think, as tribal advocates," said David Gover of the Native American Rights Fund, where Cordalis clerked in law school.

After pausing, Gover added: "It'll be a benefit for all."

Cordalis referred a request for an interview to Interior's press shop, which declined to make him available.

As a student at Rice University in Houston, Cordalis focused on hydrology. He then attended the University of Colorado Law School, during which time he clerked both for Gover's firm and the Colorado Supreme Court.

Gover said Cordalis "had an eye toward policy" and described him a "policy wonk type of guy."

While at the Native American Rights Fund, Cordalis pitched and launched a project on tribal water rights and policy. After receiving grant funding, Cordalis traveled to interview lawmakers, Interior officials and tribal representatives to learn as much as possible about the current state of water rights and tribal relations with the federal government.

It was an ambitious project, Gover said, especially considering Cordalis was still in law school.

"He tried to understand the ins and outs of tribal water rights settlements," Gover said. "It's [his] passion, and that passion leads to a work ethic that says, 'I need to look more, and how do I help advance the ball?'"

Karin Sheldon, board president of the Western Environmental Law Center, taught Cordalis in law school. She said he was quiet, but he still made an impression particularly when he spoke on tribal water rights.

"This is a person that is focused, hardworking and quite deliberate in what he does," she said.

Cordalis went on to work for Earthjustice, a leading environmental law and advocacy firm. He was involved in several cases, including challenges to Interior's management plan for threatened Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest and other wilderness management policies.

Heidi McIntosh, the managing attorney of Earthjustice's Rocky Mountain regional office, said Cordalis was a "wonderful colleague" and "a passionate and talented attorney."

"We believe he is an excellent choice to serve as deputy solicitor for water at Interior," she added.

Klamath River fight

When Cordalis left Earthjustice in June 2016, he carved out a niche for himself in tribal water rights law and set up his own firm, where he would file a series of lawsuits against the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior's water management agency in the West.

He represented the Yurok Tribe, whose reservation sits on the Klamath River, which snakes from southern Oregon through a remote area of California before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Cordalis' wife is a Yurok member.

The Yurok have a long and painful relationship with Reclamation. The bureau manages an irrigation project that provides water to about 230,000 acres of cropland in southern Oregon and Northern California, which plays a role in how much water flows down the river to the Yurok and other tribes' reservations.

Diminished flows, climate change and four dams on the river have decimated salmon runs, upon which the Yurok and other tribes rely for both subsistence fishing and religious purposes.

Tensions reached a boiling point in 2001, when Reclamation cut off irrigation supplies in order to send water downstream for the fish.

Farmers revolted, storming irrigation canals and head gates. It worked; the next year, the George W. Bush administration delivered irrigation water, holding more water upstream. The move led to a massive fish die-off, with up to 70,000 fish washed up on the Klamath's shores, according to some estimates.

Tensions among federal regulators, farmers, tribes and the states have simmered since, though they reached a historic deal last November to breach the four Klamath dams the largest dam removal project in the country (Greenwire, Nov. 18, 2020).

On behalf of the Yurok, Cordalis filed multiple lawsuits challenging the Trump Reclamation's management of the Klamath project.

In particular, one lawsuit alleged last August that a last-minute decision by Reclamation infringed on the Yurok people's religious rights by depriving the river of needed flows for the tribe's ceremonial boat dance.

Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, said Reclamation's management under Trump last summer was "atrocious," noting that it backtracked on a previous plan to release a pulse of water at the time of the ceremony.

Part of the Boat Dance ceremony includes floating down the river in redwood canoes. Because of the low flows, Myers said, the boats couldn't even float in some places.

"We literally couldn't get our canoes to flow over the ripples. It was pretty sad," he said, "We can't stand by andallow our religious ceremonies to be trampled."

The case is ongoing, but it was temporarily put on hold when President Biden took office.

Myers said Cordalis has been an effective advocate for the tribe, presenting arguments succinctly and persuasively.

He's happy Cordalis will be at Interior.

"We are saddened for our loss but absolutely proud of Daniel and all the work he's done for us," Myers said. "He's going to bring a very good perspective into the administration."

Courtesy of the Western Environmental Law Center

 

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