Ian James, The Desert SunPublished 11:59 p.m. PT Aug. 1, 2017 | Updated 12:07 a.m. PT Aug. 2, 2017
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is opposing a company’s proposal to pump groundwater in the Mojave Desert and sell it to Southern California cities.
The L.A. water utility’s board weighed in against the project on Tuesday, recommending to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council that they support a bill in the state Legislature requiring California to review the environmental impacts of the proposal.
“We feel that the risks to the desert don’t justify whatever profits or potential jobs might be gained from taking water out of this important desert aquifer,” LADWP Board President Mel Levine said after the meeting. He said he brought the matter before the board to point out the project’s “very serious risks to every component of the environment in the Mojave Desert.”
Cadiz Inc. aims to pump as much as 16.3 billion gallons of groundwater per year on land surrounded by Mojave Trails National Monument about 75 miles northeast of Palm Springs.
Conservation groups say if the company is allowed to draw down the aquifer, it would threaten natural springs and wildlife in the heart of the Mojave Desert.
Cadiz disagrees, saying the project wouldn’t harm the environment in any way.
State Assemblymember Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, last month introduced a bill that would establish additional requirements for the project to proceed.
The legislation, AB 1000, targets Cadiz by requiring state regulators to review projects that would transfer groundwater away from desert lands in the vicinity of national monuments, national preserves and other protected spaces. The State Lands Commission, working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, would be tasked with ensuring that the transfer “will not adversely affect the natural or cultural resources, including groundwater resources or habitat,” of protected lands nearby.
The bill was passed by the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee in a 7-2 vote on July 11. It’s slated to go next before the Senate Appropriations Committee, and then on to the full Senate.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has long fought the Cadiz project in Washington, sent a letter to Levine ahead of Tuesday’s meeting urging LADWP to support the bill in Sacramento. She said Cadiz’s proposal would “irrevocably harm the Mojave Desert.”
“The Cadiz water extraction project proposal illustrates why state protections of desert groundwater basins are so critical at this time,” Feinstein said in the letter. “Supporting projects like Cadiz is not supporting smart water infrastructure or sound science. It’s putting private profit over public lands that belong to all Californians.”
Levine and the other commissioners decided to send a letter to Garcetti and the City Council urging them to support AB 1000. They also agreed to recommend that L.A.’s representatives on the board of the larger Metropolitan Water District of Southern California continue to oppose the Cadiz project.
At their next meeting in two weeks, Levine said the LADWP board will vote on a resolution formalizing their opposition to the project.
Courtney Degener, Cadiz’s vice president of communications, said the commissioners’ recommendation was made without “fair notice” and without an official briefing by the project’s proponents.
“We only learned late yesterday that the Commission would discuss the project and AB 1000 and that was via a tweet from an opposition group, not LADWP,” Degener said in an emailed statement. “The verbal staff report provided did not accurately inform the Commission of the scientific, engineering, environmental, financial or legal aspects of the project.”
“It is disappointing that a public agency would conduct so unfair and biased a process for a project that will safely provide water for 400,000 people,” Degener said.
She said that the company hopes to “have an opportunity to properly brief” the LADWP board before its next meeting. “If properly informed we don’t believe the City of Los Angeles will support AB 1000 or share the Commission’s position.”
Degener said Friedman’s bill “establishes a terrible precedent for all projects and as a result has already garnered the opposition of more than 50 California organizations.”
A list of the bill’s opponents includes 18 water agencies and organizations, from the East Orange County Water District to the Mojave Water Agency, as well as the Southern California Association of Governments, cities, business associations and labor groups.
Cadiz owns 34,000 acres in the desert along Route 66 in the Cadiz and Fenner valleys, close to the Mojave National Preserve, and is proposing to build a 43-mile pipeline alongside a railroad line to send the water to Southern California cities.
While pursuing its plan to sell water, the Los Angeles-based company has been running its wells to irrigate nearly 2,000 acres of farmland, growing lemons, grapes, raisins and other crops.
Cadiz’s proposal was temporarily stymied during the Obama administration when Interior Department officials said the proposed pipeline wasn’t within the rights originally granted to the railroad in 1875 and would require an additional permit.
But that hurdle was apparently removed earlier this year when President Donald Trump’s administration announced a related policy change, scrapping guidelines that detail how federal officials are supposed to evaluate uses of public lands alongside railroads.
Opponents of the project have also voiced concerns about the appointment of David Bernhardt as deputy Interior secretary. Bernhardt, who was confirmed by the Senate last month, is a partner and shareholder – along with Cadiz CEO Scott Slater – in the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, which in turn owns shares in Cadiz.
Levine, an attorney and former Democratic member of Congress from 1983-93, said safeguarding the environment in the California desert has long been important to him. He sponsored desert protection legislation while in the House prior to the 1994 approval of Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act, which turned Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments into national parks and created the Mojave National Preserve.
Levine said he had heard about Cadiz’s proposal intermittently for many years but didn’t think it was likely to go anywhere until the Trump administration began signaling support.
“Basically it’s our collective view and my personal view that we have an administration in Washington that is hell-bent on compromising the environment,” Levine said. “Fortunately, we have state and local leaders such as Mayor Garcetti and Gov. Brown who are committed to state and local action to protect our environment, and we wanted to go on record supporting that type of environmental protection in the context of a project such as Cadiz that we feel is likely to do, as Sen. Feinstein said, irreparable harm to the desert.”
Levine said he and other commissioners received comments ahead of their discussion from people on both sides of the debate.
David Lamfrom, the National Parks Conservation Association’s desert director, praised the LADWP board for taking the position that the Cadiz project isn’t consistent with L.A.’s sustainability efforts, saying they “took powerful action today to defend precious California desert water resources” for communities, wildlife and protected areas.
“I think they’re sending a really clear signal – to water districts, to Sacramento, to the governor, to the mayor,” Lamfrom said. “If you’re a company who’s trying to sell water, to have one of the nation’s largest water districts telling you that they have no confidence in you or your product or your intentions is a really serious thing.”