State puts up a roadblock for desert water project

Law requires new environmental review of Cadiz plan to pump from Mojave aquifer.

By Phil Willon

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom has thrown another roadblock in front of a long-fought venture to pump and market groundwater from the Mojave Desert, leaving the Cadiz Inc. project facing a new set of state environmental reviews.

Newsom signed legislation Wednesday that requires the project to undergo scientific study and gain approval from the State Lands Commission before it can withdraw water from the Mojave and sell it to urban Southern California.

Newsom said he signed the bill to ensure the desert’s fragile ecosystem is protected.

“Water has flowed underneath the Mojave for thousands of years, sustaining the Native Americans, bighorn sheep, the threatened desert tortoise and a variety of other plant and animal life that have made the Mojave Desert their home,” the governor said in a statement.

The governor added that the new law would create an “independent scientific analysis” that would determine if “any major water transfer project in the Mojave will unreasonably affect the environment.”

The project by Cadiz has been the subject of a two-decades-long political drama. It was blocked by the Obama administration, then revived under President Trump.

The law signed by Newsom prohibits Cadiz, one of the largest private landowners near the Mojave National Preserve, from transferring water from a groundwater basin near a national preserve, national park or other state and federal wilderness areas unless state lands officials determine it would not have an adverse effect on groundwater resources, habitat and natural resources.

Scott Slater, president and chief executive of Cadiz, called the law a “troubling precedent for infrastructure development” but said the company is confident it can still move forward.

“We look forward to working closely with the governor’s office, the State Lands Commission and other state agencies as we complete this public, and transparent procedural step,” Slater said in a statement.

He added that the company believes that “a fact-based evaluation of the project conducted under the governor’s watchful eye will undoubtedly conclude we can sustainably contribute to this effort.”

Cadiz opponents cheered the new law.

“We’re thrilled that Gov. Newsom and the state are committed to protecting the fragile Mojave Desert from unfettered corporate greed,” Ileene Anderson, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement. “Additional review is crucial because the Cadiz water-privatization scheme is not sustainable.”

Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside), the author of the legislation, Senate Bill 307, said serious concerns have been raised about the amount of groundwater that Cadiz proposed pumping from the desert, which may be more than nature can replenish. “We can’t afford to get this wrong,” Roth said in a statement. “It is critical to allow independent scientists to review the scientific evidence in order to resolve the conflict.”

The State Lands Commission is required to review any proposed water transfer in consultation with the state departments of Fish and Wildlife and Water Resources.

Cadiz has proposed pumping enough groundwater from beneath its private Mojave Desert lands to supply 100,000 homes a year.

Environmental and public land advocates have warned that the project would dry up springs that are vital to desert wildlife. Federal environmental officials said Cadiz had overstated the recharge rate of the desert aquifer.

Cadiz had rejected both criticisms, noting that an earlier version of the water project received approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2002 and that it underwent a decade of reviews by state agencies, San Bernardino County and the courts.

Cadiz was founded by Keith Brackpool, an investor with extensive political connections in Sacramento and Los Angeles.

The company is now headed by Slater, a California water law expert who is part of the influential Colorado law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which previously employed David Bernhardt, now U.S. secretary of the Interior. The law firm’s ties to the Trump administration have come under scrutiny, as has its financial stake in the project.

In a 2016 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Brownstein was slated to receive lucrative stock shares if Cadiz started selling water. The company’s stock price fell after California lawmakers, on July 11, approved the bill Newsom signed Wednesday.

Cadiz and Brackpool, a longtime friend of former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, together contributed nearly $85,000 to Villaraigosa’s unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial campaign. The company also donated to former Govs. Gray Davis and Jerry Brown, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and a long list of California lawmakers and politicians.

Newsom also received political donations from Cadiz while he served as California’s lieutenant governor.

However, both Newsom and Brown had supported previous legislation that would have imposed similar state environmental restrictions on the Cadiz project.

In June, a federal judge struck down Trump administration decisions that cleared the way for Cadiz to build a water pipeline across public land in the California desert. Cadiz has said the administration could easily remedy the court’s concerns.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been one of the project’s staunchest opponents.The senator has long championed protections for the Mojave and other desert lands in Southern California, and she applauded the new law Wednesday.  “If Cadiz were allowed to drain a vital desert aquifer, everything that makes our desert special — from bighorn sheep and desert tortoises to Joshua trees and breathtaking wildflower blooms — would have been endangered,” Feinstein said in a statement.