State Senator Richard Roth and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman have reintroduced legislation that would significantly attenuate or perhaps event thwart Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc.’s designs on diverting billions of gallons of east Mojave Desert groundwater to Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Senate Bill 307 is an amalgamation of the two legislators’ previous efforts to safeguard desert water, Friedman’s Assembly Bill 1000, introduced in July 2017, and Roth’s Senate Bill 120, introduced in August 2018. Both were met with stiff opposition by Cadiz, Inc. and lobbyists and politicians working on the company’s behalf. That opposition, and the consideration that both bills were introduced so late in the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, ultimately doomed those attempts.
Friedman and Roth have now combined their efforts in a coordinated approach, involving a bill introduced months ahead of the deadline by which legislation must be considered and voted upon, thus bypassing what had proven the fate of the earlier bills.
Senate Bill 307 would put in place measures requiring “that any future water transfers from groundwater basins underlying desert lands do not adversely affect the California desert’s natural or cultural resources,” according to an encapsulation of the bill.
Roth said, “Senate Bill 307 enhances protections to California’s deserts by ensuring any future water transfers from groundwater basins underlying desert lands do not adversely affect the desert’s natural or cultural resources, including groundwater resources or sensitive habitats. The issue at hand is the role the state will play in preserving the fragile ecosystem in the Mojave Desert. Proposals to extract water from aquifers historically receive the highest level of scrutiny. A long-debated proposal continues to generate concern due to a discrepancy in how much water can be sustainably pumped from an aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert. If we get this wrong we run the risk of destroying a precious national monument and fragile ecosystem. We must proceed with the utmost caution.”
While Senate Bill 307 does not mention Cadiz, Inc. or the company’s centerpiece undertaking, the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, the proposed law represents a direct threat to the viability of the arrangement by which the company would extract 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater, an amount equal to 16.29 billion gallons, every year from the aquifers beneath the Cadiz and Fenner valleys in the eastern Mojave Desert. That water would be conveyed to Orange and Los Angeles counties.
The project evolved from what was originally the Cadiz Land Company’s plan to secure water rights in a remote locale in the Mojave Desert to then sell that water for use elsewhere. Using a 40-acre plot near Cadiz, the company, then led by Ted Dutton and Keith Brackpool, in 1987 began growing organic vegetables and fruits, including beans, melons and tomatoes. Thereafter, the company, based upon the irrigation of those crops at the Cadiz farm, made a claim to water rights from the Cadiz/Fenner aquifer. In 1997, the Metropolitan Water District bought into a proposal from the Cadiz Land Company to convey up to 1.5 million acre-feet of what was at that time referenced as “surplus” Colorado River water to the Cadiz Valley and “store” that water by pumping it into the water table there. In “dry years” the Cadiz Land Company proposed allowing the Metropolitan Water District to extract water from the aquifer and conduct it through a 35-mile pipeline that was to be constructed between the Cadiz Valley and the Metropolitan Water District’s existing Colorado River aqueduct.
After five years of environmental studies, in August 2002, the federal government gave approval to the project. In October 2002, however, the proposal was rejected by the Metropolitan Water District’s board of directors after conservationists raised concerns over possible environmental damage. The concept lay dormant for six years as an extensive round of litigation between the Cadiz Land Company and the Metropolitan Water District ensued. In 2008, the Cadiz Land Company, by then known as Cadiz, Inc., revived the plan in modified form, having eliminated the storage of water from the Colorado River in the desert’s water table and instead proposing to obtain the water from sources feeding the desert area’s dry lakes that the company maintained are subject to excessive evaporation. The revived project, to entail the sinking of 34 wells into the desert and construction of a 44-mile pipeline to meet up with the aqueduct carrying Colorado River water to the Los Angeles and Orange County metropolitan areas, was given a tentative budget of $536.25 million. Cadiz, Inc. first arranged to find potential buyers of the water, lining up the Santa Margarita Water District, in Orange County; the Three Valleys Water District, which provides water to the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley, and Eastern San Gabriel Valley; the Golden State Water Company, which serves several communities in Southern California, including Claremont; Suburban Water Systems, which serves Covina, West Covina and La Mirada; and the Jurupa Community Services District, which serves Mira Loma in Riverside County. To obtain environmental certification of the project, Cadiz, Inc. turned not to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, but to the Santa Margarita Water District, which was to be the largest recipient of the water. The Santa Margarita Water District is the second largest water district in Orange County, serving the affluent communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and Talega.
Based on the consideration that the Santa Margrita Water District lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley across the county line from San Bernardino County, a contingent of San Bernardino County residents protested allowing a water district with a stake in the project assuming lead agency status on the project. Key to San Bernardino County lining up to contest that arrangement in court was then-San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, in whose First District the Cadiz and Fenner valleys and much of the East Mojave were located. With Mitzelfelt at that point attempting to leapfrog from his position as county supervisor to Congress, Cadiz, Inc. opportunistically took advantage of the circumstance, providing Mitzelfelt with $48,100 in political donations, in return for which Mitzelfelt prevailed upon his board colleagues to allow the Santa Margarita Water District to usurp project approval and environmental certification authority from them. Ironically, it was in some measure Mitzelfelt’s support of Cadiz, Inc.’s effort to commandeer the region’s water supply for use in Orange and Los Angeles counties that undercut his viability as a Congressional candidate. In the 2012 primary race in the 8th Congressional District, Mitzelfelt, even with the Cadiz, Inc. money infusing his campaign effort, placed a distant fifth among thirteen candidates. In reaching for the Congressional brass ring, Mitzelfelt had to forgo seeking reelection as supervisor, consigning himself to leave office later that year. He was still in office as a lame duck when on July 31, 2012, the Santa Margarita Water District’s Board of Directors certified the environmental impact report for the Cadiz Water project, clearing the way for Cadiz, Inc. to extract an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year – more than 16 billion gallons of groundwater annually – for the next century from the eastern Mojave Desert and send it via pipeline westward to Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
In this way, the Cadiz Water Project, officially called by its proponents the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, became known as the Mitzelfelt’s lasting political legacy, the final product of his failed attempt to trade the trust of his constituents and his authority over the fate of their regional resources for cash he believed would be the key to vaulting him into national political office.
Over the next seven years, a succession of environmental challenges and lawsuits delayed the implementation of the project. Cadiz, Inc. succeeded in removing those to Orange County Superior Court and overcoming all of those lawsuits, and is now dealing with them at the appellate level.
With the advent of the Donald Trump administration, the prospects for the project brightened, as the president announced in the Spring of 2017 a policy prioritizing such undertakings and removing the requirement that they be subjected to extensive environmental review.
Later in 2017, Friedman, D-Glendale, in response to the federal administration’s policy, entered the fray, altering the language of pending legislation, AB 1000, which originally pertained to water meter standards, to halt significant water pumping until state land and wildlife officials review the proposed groundwater extractions to first certify they will not harm the desert’s ecology. “When the federal government refuses to undertake these environmental reviews, the state must step up and make sure they are done,” said Friedman.
Friedman’s move triggered objections and a counteraction from Cadiz, Inc. and its corporate officers, who characterized what she was engaged in as “flawed legislation.” They turned to three of their allies in the California Senate, State Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens; Kevin de León D-Los Angeles, who was from 2014 until March 2018 was the California Senate President Pro Tempore; and current California Senate Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. Having already provided de León with $9,100 in political contributions up to that point, Cadiz, Inc. intensified its support for de León’s 2018 run for U.S. Senate. Cadiz, Inc. also sought to ensure it would obtain Atkins, the one-time California Assembly Speaker and who in 2018 succeeded de León as California Senate President Pro Tempore, contributing $15,550 to her either directly as a corporate contribution or from employees and those of its law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, which also employs Cadiz, Inc.’s president, Scott Slater. With de León, Lara and Atkins militating for Cadiz behind the scenes, the release of AB 1000 was effectively blocked and kept from making it past the California Senate Appropriations Committee, where it lay dormant at the end of the 2017 legislative session.
Picking up in 2018 where Friedman had left off in 2017, California State Senator Senator Richard Roth formulated Senate Bill 120, the upshot of which was that the transfer of groundwater out of the desert would be prohibited unless the State Lands Commission and the Department of Fish and Wildlife conclude the water removal “will not adversely affect the natural or cultural resources” of nearby state or federal lands. Roth said the bill was not intended to prohibit the use of desert water outside of the desert, but would prevent water removal if such pumping had the effect of removing more water from the desert on an annual basis or within any given time frame if the recharge of water into the desert during the time period considered did not equal or exceed the amount of water taken out.
Senate Bill 120 was introduced at a very late stage in the legislative process, greatly complicating its prospect for passage. The bill was presented to Roth’s fellow and sister legislators on Friday, August 24, one week prior to the August 31 end of the 2018 legislative session. Thus, from the outset, its passage was going to require nearly Herculean expediting across a normally grueling and methodical process that typically requires months. Remarkably, Senate Bill 120 was ratified by California Lower House in just five days, as the Assembly voted 45-20 to accept it. But that left less than three days for the Senate to consider it and vote upon it. Cadiz had sewn an outcome favorable to itself up, based not only on the then-presence of de León, Lara and Atkins in the California Senate, but its retention of the services of a formidable array of lobbyists, including a lobbying firm headed by Greg Campbell, Toni Atkins’ former chief of staff, another lobbying firm headed by Justin Fanslau, who was Atkins’ former legislative director, and Mercury Public Affairs, which employs former Assembly Speaker Fabián Nuñez.
Those lobbyists working on behalf of Cadiz, Inc. are pushing the narrative that the project has already been subject to a California Environmental Quality Act review and that the project’s opponents have unfairly loaded the dice against the project with legislation such as Senate Bill 120 and Assembly Bill 1000. They are further marshaling endorsement of the project by construction worker unions, as those union members stand to obtain employment in the construction of the pipeline.
California’s U.S. Senator, Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the author of the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015 and the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, said she was absolutely in support of SB 307.
“The Trump administration has rolled back key protections at the federal level, so we need the state legislature to step up and pass this critically important legislation to stop projects like Cadiz,” she said.
David Lamfrom, the California director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said, “Senator Roth is answering the calls of communities, water agencies, tribes and conservation organizations by defending California desert water. Generations of people who live in the desert and love the desert have fought this harmful proposal, which endangers one of our country’s most unique, precious and important places. With acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s long-time connections to the Cadiz proposal and the Trump administration’s actions to eliminate safeguards, the time for California to take action is now.”
In reaction to the introduction of SB 307, Cadiz, Inc. stated, “Last year, Senator Roth authored SB 120, with identical language as SB 307; SB 120 garnered strong opposition from nearly 80 organizations representing labor, business, community groups and local government, and ultimately failed to pass out of the Legislature at the end of session. Since that time, we have engaged in a dialogue with Senator Roth to address his questions about the long-term sustainability of the project and the state’s role in groundwater management in the vast Mojave Desert. We understand that Senator Roth intends to continue to engage with us and our opponents throughout the legislative session. We appreciate the senator’s willingness to engage with us and welcome a continued dialogue with the Legislature and the bill’s proponents.”
The statement continues, “Cadiz is and has always been committed to making reliable, clean drinking water available to Southern California in a safe, sustainable way. We have followed the law to develop a project that can be part of the solution to California’s long-term water challenges and are proud of our plan to manage groundwater at our private property in San Bernardino County so it can provide new water for 400,000 people across Southern California as well as new groundwater storage for our growing state.
“We agree with Senator Roth and his co-sponsor Assemblywoman Laura Friedman that thorough review of groundwater projects in desert ecosystems is important,” the statement continues. “Cadiz has worked with dozens of expert hydrologists and geologists from leading universities to evaluate the science behind this project and help design a project that will not harm the desert environment. Cadiz has followed California’s stringent environmental laws to permit the project and worked with the County of San Bernardino on a detailed groundwater management plan to limit the project to safe and sustainable levels of operation. We are also committed to providing Senator Roth the assurance he is seeking that our project is sustainable, but we disagree that SB 307 is the appropriate vehicle or solution given its laser focus on one specific project in one small section of the Mojave Desert instead of subjecting all groundwater use in the Mojave Desert to the same standards. Furthermore, as drafted, SB 307 proposes to subject court-approved decisions made under the California Environmental Quality Act, and in accordance with local groundwater law, to new, undefined reviews. Were the Legislature to enact such a policy, it would be establishing a troubling precedent for infrastructure development and groundwater management across California.”
The statement concluded, “Therefore, we will strongly oppose SB 307, unless amended to address our concerns, as we opposed its predecessors SB 120 and AB 1000.”