BLM OKs Mojave Desert Water Pipeline, Reversing Obama-Era Policy

Sundown near Landers, California, an unincorporated community of San Bernardino in the Mojave Desert. (Photo by Jessie Eastland via Wiki)

(CN) – The Trump administration has given the go-ahead for a project to siphon millions of gallons of water from an underground aquifer in the Mojave Desert and sell it to Southern California water districts.

Cadiz, the company in charge of building the 43-mile pipeline across federal land, hailed the decision while environmentalists fret the scope of the project could have devastating effects on the fragile and relatively pristine ecosystem of the Mojave.

In a letter to Cadiz, the Bureau of Land Management said it had removed legal hurdle implemented by the Obama administration, paving the way for the company to begin the project.

“The October 2015 administrative determination is no longer an accurate representation of the BLM’s view of the applicable law and facts, and therefore is expressly superseded by this letter,” said Michael Nedd, acting BLM director, in the Oct. 13 letter.

BLM legal analysts in the Obama administration had said a railroad right-of-way could not be used for purposes apart from the operation of a railroad, which effectively ended Cadiz’s bid to build the project along the tracks.

However, Cadiz and its CEO Scott Slater – who is also part of the high-powered Denver-based law firm Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck, which has frequently lobbied the U.S. Department of Interior and fostered connections to Donald Trump’s presidential transition team – got the Trump-era BLM to see things differently.

“The company is very pleased to receive this letter from the BLM regarding the project’s proposed use of the railroad right-of-way,” Slater said in a statement issued Tuesday. “We have long maintained that the 2015 evaluation by BLM was wrong on the law, wrong on the facts and inconsistent with the policy driving co-location of infrastructure in existing rights-of-way to minimize project footprints and environmental harm.”

But significant hurdles remain, as California government has begun erecting impediments in place of the ones the Trump administration is busy dismantling.

The Cadiz project has already gone through the state-run approval process, which included environmental review under the rigorous California Environmental Quality Act. But the State Lands Commission says the pipeline will cross a segment of state-owned land and will require a lease.

“This letter is a reminder that any use of state-owned lands under the commission’s jurisdiction will require a lease from the commission,” Brian Bugsch, chief of the commission’s land management division, said in a letter dated Sept. 20. “Because the commission will be making a discretionary decision when considering the lease, a subsequent environmental impact report or its equivalent may be required to meet the California Environmental Quality Act requirements.”

Cadiz has brushed off the commission’s gambit, saying the agency had plenty of time to throw its hat in the ring during the first round of environmental assessments.

“The CEQA review for the Cadiz Water Project was fully certified and then upheld by the California Court of Appeal in 2016,” the company said in a release issued on Oct. 9. “The EIR is final and conclusive on all parties properly notified. The statute of ‘imitations to challenge the EIR has passed.”

The lands commission isn’t the only powerful opponent lining up to oppose the project, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein has long made her enmity to the project known – going so far as to request state legislators to introduce a bill to require another round of environmental reviews.

“It’s no surprise the Trump administration is willing to look the other way while Cadiz drains a vital desert aquifer,” Feinstein said in a statement. “California must now step up to protect the Mojave Desert from Cadiz and its friends in the administration.”

Furthermore, environmentalists concerned about the project’s potential to harm the desert ecosystem are likely to look for recourse in the legal system.

Environmentalists point to an independent analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey that shows Cadiz plans to withdraw 50,000 acre-feet of water per year for 50 years, more than five times the recharge rate in the rain-starved portion of California.

Groups also say the three valleys in the Mojave – the Fenner, Bristol and Cadiz valleys – teem with life, both flora and fauna, that rely on aquifers that have been in place for centuries.

Other critics say the project is unnecessary, particularly as Southern California attempts to solve water problems with 21st century solutions like water recycling and desalination plants and watershed restoration projects focused on rehabilitating the Los Angeles River.

But Slater says that environmentalists greatly misunderstand the nuances of the project, saying much of the water Cadiz wants to siphon through the pipeline would evaporate anyway, serving no purpose for the ecosystem.

The company issued a statement in April saying Feinstein fundamentally misunderstands the project and is jeopardizing a project that is both economically beneficial and environmentally sound.

“Two public agencies and 12 separate court opinions have expressly repudiated her arguments and sustained our project in accordance with CEQA, the highest environmental legal standard anywhere in America,” Cadiz said.


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