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Cadiz water pipeline permit vacated after feds ask to reconsider decision

The judge also found a proper review hadn't been done when the permit was issued.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A judge vacated a permit to use a former natural gas pipeline to pump water from an underground reservoir in the Mojave desert to Southern California after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management told a federal judge it wants to reconsider the decision made in the final days of the Trump administration.

U.S. District Judge George Wu on Tuesday granted the bureau's request for voluntary remand of the right-of-way Cadiz received in 2020 to transport water through the 64 miles of pipeline that runs across federal land. The judge also vacated the permit because it wasn't based on a full agency review and decision-making process.

The Cadiz water project aims to extract roughly 16.3 billion gallons of groundwater every year for 50 years from aquifers north of Joshua Tree National Park. Environmental groups have been fighting the project for years claiming it would overtax the surrounding environment. They sued again in 2021, claiming the Bureau of Land Management leapfrogged over the necessary environmental analysis when it approved a right-of-way for use of the pipeline.

“The Trump administration’s decision to give Cadiz these rights-of-way without any environmental review was clearly illegal,” Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice representing the conservation groups, said in a statement Wednesday. “The court did the right thing in granting the Bureau of Land Management’s request to undo the flawed decision that would have devastating impacts on the Mojave Desert.”

Cadiz said in a statement that the ruling will have no impact on completion of its water conservation and storage project and that it didn't expect additional environmental review by BLM will cause significant delay.

"While permits for conversion of the northern pipeline are reviewed by federal agencies, the company will continue with the conversion of the pipeline and development of the project, including the construction of three new groundwater wells beginning in the 4th quarter of 2022," Cadiz said. "Construction of the three wells will start in early October and proceed through 1st quarter of 2023. With three new wells online, the Cadiz Ranch will have 10 wells in operation with total annual capacity of 25,000 acre-feet of water per year."

Cadiz Inc. proposed the project in 2012. Over the years, the company has realigned sections of the proposed pipeline route, but in 2015 a legal evaluation from the BLM under then-President Barack Obama said a railroad right-of-way could not be used for purposes apart from the operation of a railroad. This effectively stopped the project in its tracks.

In the 2015 memo, the BLM had said the pipeline is beyond the scope of the 1875 act easement and found “no relationship between the express purpose for the pipeline and the railroad’s operation.” But under the Trump administration, the federal agency reversed course in a 2017 superseding memo stating the 1875 act applies because the pipeline wouldn’t “‘interfere’ with the railroad, or because it will ‘further a railroad purpose.’”

In 2019, a federal judge ruled the Trump BLM’s interpretation of the law was “incredibly broad” and said the agency could not adequately explain why it reversed its 2015 legal opinion. However, after the judge had remanded the evaluation back to the agency, the BLM the following year again granted Cadiz permission to construct in the railroad right-of-way and there has been no further litigation over the mater.

Two years ago, Cadiz sought to repurpose an oil and gas pipeline operated by El Paso Natural Gas, which has the right-of-way over federal land. BLM approved this application on Dec. 21, 2020, in the last days of the Trump administration.

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