Bill aimed at stopping the proposed Cadiz water project dies in committee

By on September 10, 2018
Cadiz Water Project

Proposed legislation is dashed when a full State Senate vote is denied and the legislative session ends.

A proposal that would draw groundwater from a large part of the Mojave Desert appears ready to move forward.

Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. won a major victory when the Senate Appropriations Committee in Sacramento tabled a bill that would have blocked its project, effectively killing the proposed legislation.

That action came Aug. 31, the last day of the legislative session. Two days earlier the Assembly voted 50-23 to pass Senate Bill 120, which was written by State Sen. Richard D. Roth, D-Riverside.

That decision was welcomed by a Cadiz official, who said the project has already undergone sufficient environmental review, despite claims by its critics.

“It was trying to force another layer of environmental review on the project in order to protect wildlife, but it was never clear how it was going to do that,” said Courtney Degener, Cadiz spokeswoman. “We had already gone through the [California Environmental Quality Act], but then they tried to move the goalposts with this bill.

“It was a post-CEQA issue that we had to deal with, and we don’t think it was fair.”

Cadiz is a natural resources company that owns approximately 45,000 acres in the East Mojave Desert. That land is divided into three sites, each of which is part of San Bernardino County, according to the company’s website.

The company wants to pump more than 16 million gallons of water from beneath those properties every year and sell it to various water agencies throughout Southern California, mostly in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The water would be transported via a 43-mile pipeline that Cadiz would build. The pipeline would run along a railroad right-of-way to the Metropolitan Water District’s aqueduct east of Joshua Tree.

Besides having passed CEQA, the Cadiz water project has been approved by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. It has also been upheld in two state court rulings and is supported by nearly 75 percent of San Bernardino County residents, according to a survey conducted last spring by the Baldy View Chapter of the Building Industry Association of Southern California, which covers San Bernardino County.

Senate Bill 120, which was backed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, would block any project that moves water out of the Mojave Desert  “unless the State Lands Commission [and] the Department of Fish and Wildlife find that the transfer of the water will not adversely affect the natural or cultural resources of those federal and state lands.”

SB-120 was a “gut and amend” bill, a common practice in Sacramento. The term means removing all, or a substantial part of, a proposed bill and replacing it with something unrelated, often to get the new legislation passed quickly.

Opponents of the Cadiz water project have greatly exaggerated the impact it would have on the desert’s ecosystem, Degener said.

“There’s been a lot of talk about how it will drain the desert of its natural resources and hurt wildlife, but none of that is true,” Degener said. “The courts have said the project is limited in scope and will not have a negative impact, yet [critics] make it sound like we’re trying to take every drop of water out of the desert.”

The project will operate in 50,000 acre feet of water, but it’s part of a basin that contains 20 million acre feet, Degener said.

“We’re talking about a fraction of a percentage point,” Degener said.

Supporters of SB-120 claim the bill is needed because the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to protect the wells underneath the 1.6-million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument in San Bernardino County.

Specifically they state that the Trump Administration changed the laws regarding the use of Railroad Right of Ways for non-railroad purposes.  Previous administrations required federal review when such a move was proposed, but the Trump Administration did away with that, said David Lamfrom, spokesman for the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association.

But, sources for IE Business Daily have confirmed that previous administrations dating back to the early 1900s had granted Railroads broad discretion to allow third party access to their railroad property for uses including the transmission of electricity, natural gas, oil, telecommunications and water, among other services to encourage co-location in existing corridors.

It was the Obama Administrations’ Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the request of Cadiz Water Project opponent Senator Dianne Feinstein that changed federal right of way policy to require federal involvement in this real estate matter, a controversial decision of great concern to many in Congress and the railroad industry.  The Trump Administration reviewed and replaced that new interpretation to be consistent with case law outlined by the Solicitor General’s office in 2017.

According to Degener, the allegation that SB 120 was needed because of Trump Administration actions on the right of way is misleading. “The Cadiz Project is a California Project that was already reviewed in accordance with California environmental regulations – which are far more stringent than their federal counterpart- and upheld by California’s courts. The use of the railroad right of way does not allow the project to avoid review or permitting. It did however protect the desert environment by making it possible to share an active, regulated corridor instead of disturbing open desert land.” She said.

“The people who support this project say that it’s had all of the environmental review that it needs, but that’s a false narrative,” Lamfrom said. “The Trump Administration removed all federal [oversight] from this project last year. The people who support the Cadiz water project saw their dreams realized when the Trump Administration took over.”

SB-120 can’t change federal law, but it would require the state to provide the oversight that the federal government formerly would have, Lamfrom said.

Conservation groups argued that redirecting that much water out of the desert would threaten the region’s ecosystem, including wildlife, and that the proposal should undergo more extensive environmental review by the state.

They also don’t like that the pipeline would cross the Mojave Trails National Monument, the largest monument of its kind in California, Lamfrom said.

Lamfrom pointed to the bill’s broad support, which included Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Toni Atkins, president pro tem of the Senate, did not allow Roth’s bill to go before the Senate for a full vote before the legislative term expired.

“She went above the Senate and acted on behalf of Cadiz,” Lamfrom said “I have no idea why she did that, but if she hadn’t the bill would have become law.”

The battle over SB-120-may not be over, as the bill will still be active when the legislature reconvenes in December.

“We’re exploring all of our options,” Lamfrom said. “Running back Sen. Roth’s bill is one thing we might do.”