Court Clears Mojave Water Project’s Hurdles

     SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — A California appeals court panel cleared the way for the Cadiz Mojave Desert groundwater project to continue, rejecting two attempts to hinder its progress on environmental grounds.
     The proposed project to pump ancient groundwater from property owned by Cadiz Inc. in the Mojave Desert using an underground aquifer has been the focus of six related lawsuits.
     A public-private partnership, the project intends to prevent wasting water in the aquifer by pumping it out and transferring it customers in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and Riverside counties.
     The Cadiz Valley and Fenner Valley aquifer system located in the Mojave Desert holds an estimated 17 to 34 million acre-feet of fresh groundwater, which flows to two dry lakes where it becomes unusable.
     “The fundamental purpose of the project is to save ‘substantial quantities of groundwater’ that are being lost to evaporation and excess salinity,” Fourth Appellate District Judge Richard Fybel wrote in one of the opinions.
     To reach the end goal of transporting fresh water through a 43-mile underground water conveyance pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct — which would then transport it to the project participants — the project involves digging 34 new wells on Cadiz’s land in order to pump 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year, or 16.3 billion gallons of water.
     The project also aims to offer a storage capacity of over 1 million acre-feet, where it can be stored in the aquifer system from year to year if participants chose to carry over their annual water supply, according to Cadiz’s website.
     Project participants include six Southern California water providers: Suburban Water Systems, Golden State Water Company, Jurupa Community Services, California Water Service Company, and the Santa Margarita and Three Valleys Municipal Water Districts.
     Other participants include the Arizona California Railway Company, which has requested water for its railroading purposes and Cadiz itself, which has reserved 20 percent of the water supply for future use by San Bernardino County-based water agencies. Fenner Valley, a private nonprofit entity formed by Cadiz, will manage the project.
     Delaware Tetra Technologies challenged a memorandum of understanding among project participants outlining the framework of the project, since an environmental review had not initially been conducted.
     The flow of groundwater directly affects Delaware Tetra, which operates brine-mining facilities at the dry lakes.
     Writing for the panel, Fybel rejected Delaware Tetra’s argument as a trial court had, finding that an environmental review does not need to be conducted since the memorandum is not a project.
     Furthermore, signing parties also agree that the project will not move forward unless the plan is finalized based on information provided by a prepared and publically released environmental impact report.
     “In this case, the memorandum does not foreclose alternatives or mitigation measures. It does not commit the county to a particular course of action that will cause an environmental impact. The county retained full discretion over the project despite its execution of the memorandum. Therefore, the memorandum could be executed by the county without conducting a full environmental review,” Fybel wrote.
     An environmental impact report for the project was eventually certified, leading to the second lawsuit at issue from the Center for Biological Diversity, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and the National Parks Conservation Association. The groups claimed that the project’s current EIR is misleading by describing itself as conserving water.
     A trial court rejected the groups’ claims, as did the appellate panel — although the judges cautioned their rulings do not mean the project is approved.
     Again writing for the panel, Fybel said that although water evaporation may equal the amount of water being pumped from the aquifer, the project still meets its conservation objective since it captures water that would otherwise be lost.
     The panel also found the environmental review adequately addressed the amount of water that will be pumped and the time span of the project, despite the groups’ contentions.
     And the panel rejected claims that Santa Margarita Water District was improperly named as the lead agency, finding that it is wholly responsible for supervising and approving the project as a whole.
     Christian Marsh, attorney for San Bernardino County and its Board of Supervisors, said his clients had no comment at this time.
     Cadiz spokeswoman Courtney Degener said in an email that there was “no ambiguity in the words of the Court of Appeal.”
     She added, “The lower court’s rulings validating the project’s environmental impact report, thorough California Enviromental Quality Act review, and groundwater management plan have all been clearly and definitively affirmed by the Court of Appeal in their six opinions. These opinions continue an uninterrupted validation of the Cadiz Water Project and its mission to conserve and deliver enough water for 400,000 people without causing harm to the environment.
     “The mountains of evidence, peer review, public agency approvals and judicial scrutiny, including these robust opinions from the appellate court, have all determined without qualification that the project is technically and legally sound.”

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