The largest irrigation district in the United States is bulking up on lawyer-lobbyists in Washington for a battle pitting agribusiness against an array of environmental groups.

Sidley Austin notified Congress this month that government-strategies counsel Catherine Karen is lobbying for the Fresno, Calif.-based Westlands Water District, becoming the fourth big-firm lobbyist in Washington to represent the irrigation district. She joined Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck shareholder David Bernhardt and of counsel Ryan Smith, as well as Akerman Senterfitt of counsel Joseph Findaro Jr., according to congressional records.

The lobbying reports submitted to Congress show that the fight is over congressional approval of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), which would bring more water to farmers in the region. The measure would also restrict the application of the Endangered Species Act in the region and would prohibit California from engaging in conservation work and enforcing rules that would contradict the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord, an agreement that settled water and wildlife disputes between the state and the federal government.

Westlands and farmers’ groups support the bill, which passed the House on Feb. 29 and awaits Senate consideration.

Environmental groups, among others, fear that it would hurt populations of fish that include the tiny delta smelt and Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Westlands and business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dispute the claim, saying the legislation helps bring more water to both people and fish.

The irrigation district is working with members of Congress “to find meaningful solutions to the acute challenges that have been harmful to workers, farmers and communities,” Bernhardt wrote in an e-mail. “It is important that Congress enact legislation to restore the certainty of water supplies to this region and to not devastate an agricultural economy that employs tens-of-thousands of people and helps feed the nation.”

Brownstein received $160,000 from Westlands for its lobbying work last year, while Akerman took in less than $20,000. Sidley, Brownstein and Akerman have yet to disclose how much they’ve received from Westlands thus far this year.

The Brownstein lawyers last year lobbied the House on “[p]otential legislation regarding the Bureau of Reclamation and the Endangered Species Act” and “[o]versight,” according to congressional records. The Bureau of Reclamation is a U.S. Interior Department agency that manages water resources.

Karen declined to comment, though the timing of her introduced involvement seems to indicate that she soon plans to become active. Though her form to Congress was dated March 15, her effective registration date was Feb. 27 — just two days before the measure moved from the House to the Senate. Karen had worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and on the staff of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), among other groups, before joining the firm.

EXPERTISE AND VALUE

Karen is lobbying on a matter clearly related to the Nunes bill, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, an effort to balance environmental concerns with the need for reliable water supplies in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Obama administration threatened a veto of the bill, saying in a statement that the measure “would undermine five years of collaboration between local, State, and Federal stakeholders to develop the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.”

Findaro of Akerman, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, in 2011 advocated on the “Bay Delta Conservation Plan; San Joaquin Settlement; Water resources issues,” congressional records show. (The Nunes bill would repeal the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, which became law in 2009.) As part of his lobbying efforts, Findaro communicated with the House, the Senate and the Interior Department.

Westlands General Manager Thomas Birmingham said he doesn’t expect Sidley to lobby directly on the Nunes bill. But Karen’s lobbying on the Bay Delta plan, which Westlands opposes, could help the Nunes bill along. Detractors of the legislation fear that the measure might make a final Bay Delta plan unachievable.

Findaro and the Brownstein lawyers likely will provide senators with information on how the legislation would help Westlands, as the lobbyists did with members of the House, if the Senate takes up the bill, Birmingham said.

The lobbyists have “tremendous expertise,” Birmingham said. “I think we’ve received tremendous value” from them, he added.

Findaro, who has lobbied for Westlands for more than a decade, previously served as deputy assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department during the Reagan administration and counsel in the Washington office of California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) from 1983 to 1985.

Bernhardt also is a former Interior Department official. He served as the agency’s solicitor from 2006 to 2009, working on issues that included the Endangered Species Act and water issues. Smith also worked on those matters as a senior aide to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) from 2005 to 2010.

Westlands is being joined in the fight by two groups that also have a clear interest in the matter: the Western Growers Association, an agricultural trade group whose members grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in California, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It is unclear if the Chamber has yet filed reports showing paid lobbying work on the Nunes bill, but it’s clear the powerful business trade group is starting to use its bully pulpit on the issue.

R. Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s government affairs executive vice president, wrote to House members before the Feb. 29 vote that they should support the legislation, threatening that the business federation may include the vote in their annual scorecard on how members of Congress vote. “The bill would ensure a reliable water supply for people and fish, secure water rights, and save taxpayer money,” he wrote.

Congressional records show that Julian Heron of Tuttle Taylor & Heron in Washington lobbied last year on the bill for the Western Growers Association. The group, whose almond and pistachio growing members are most directly affected, supports the legislation. They paid Tuttle Taylor $94,954 for its lobbying work in 2011 on issues that included the legislation. Heron, a senior partner with the firm, declined comment.

‘SO MANY PROBLEMS’

The Westlands lobbyists face a number of detractors. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice are among the organizations that lobbied on the measure last year, according to congressional records.

It couldn’t be determined ­precisely how much each group spent lobbying against the Nunes bill. But the three groups did spend a combined $2 million on lobbying in 2011 in matters that included the legislation. The Sierra Club spent $520,000 on federal lobbying last year; Defenders of Wildlife used $620,555 for federal advocacy efforts; and Earthjustice devoted $888,933 to its federal lobbying work.

Earthjustice Associate Legislative Counsel Marjorie Mulhall, the group’s lobbyist on the legislation, said the measure has “so many problems,” including the repeal of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act and the bill’s effect on fish.

“It’s such a blatant water grab on behalf of Big Ag interests,” Mulhall said. She said she has focused her lobbying efforts on members of Congress from California.

A representative from Sierra Club referred questions to an environmental advocate with a different group, who couldn’t be reached. A Defenders of Wildlife official also couldn’t be reached for comment.

Despite passing the Republican-controlled House, the Nunes bill may face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats have the majority.

California’s two Democratic senators have said they are opposed to the legislation. After the House passed the bill, Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the measure “a recipe for disaster.

“Candidly, I have seen few pieces of legislation during my 19 years in the Senate that are as poorly considered and dangerously one-sided as this one,” Feinstein said. “I stand ready to work with anyone in good faith to solve Cali­fornia’s water problems, but this bill is not a starting point.”

Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at aramonas@alm.com.