Board Endorses LA & Orange Counties Draining Desert Aquifer

(October 5)  In an action of historic proportion, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on October 1 voted 4-1 to allow a water extraction project in the east Mojave Desert to proceed, removing the last procedural obstacle to a Los Angeles-based company’s plan to profit from the exportation of billions of gallons of San Bernardino County’s water up to 230  miles westward for sale and use in Orange, Los Angeles and  Riverside counties.
Notably, San Bernardino County was not  the lead agency on the project. Rather, Monday’s hearing was a formality required under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between the company undertaking the project, Cadiz, Inc., and Orange County-based Santa Margarita Water District, which served as the agency-of-record for the approval of the project and its environmental certification, and the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company, an entity owned by Cadiz, Inc. The county by its action signed off on the Santa Margarita Water District’s approval of the project and certification of the environmental impact report, and it approved a groundwater management, monitoring, and mitigation plan to facilitate it.
On July 31, the Santa Margarita Water District, which lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley and serves the affluent communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and Talega, approved the project, officially known as the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation and Recovery Project, certified the environmental impact report for the project and agreed to purchase 20 percent of the water Cadiz, Inc. drafts as a consequence of that approval. The environmental impact report states that Cadiz, Inc. can draw an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year from the desert aquifer for the next century.
The controversial plan was given go-ahead over the strident objections of desert residents and landowners, who said they viewed the project as an unprincipled theft of the desert’s water resource by Cadiz, Inc. and the water district. Environmentalists registered opposition to the project, asserting the amount of water to be extracted from the desert will exceed the natural recharge rate of the region’s groundwater basins, that springs within the immediate area of the project’s well field will dry up, and  near-lying aquifers that are linked to the Cadiz Valley and Fenner Valley’s water tables will be depleted.
While Scott Slater, the president and general counsel for the Cadiz Land Company, and Christian Marsh, an attorney representing the county of San Bernardino, asserted that the October 1 hearing fulfills all of the procedural requirements for the project to proceed, John Goss, a former assistant administrative officer with San Bernardino County who had worked for 18 months drafting the county’s desert groundwater management ordinance before it was adopted in 2002, said that ordinance was violated when the memorandum of understanding between the county, Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District had been entered into before a groundwater management plan for the Cadiz project was adopted. There were also suggestions that the county had failed to live up to its own procedural requirements when it failed to provide a ten-day public review of the documentation considered by the board on October 1.  That documentation, consisting of the groundwater management, monitoring, and mitigation plan, was not made available until September 26.
The board of supervisors would have normally been the lead agency responsible for approving the project and granting it environmental certification. After Cadiz, Inc. arranged for the Santa Margarita Water District to commandeer that process, San Bernardino County officials initially contemplated filing an appeal with the California Office of Planning and Research to wrest from Santa Margarita authority over the project and its application for approval. The county, however, did not file such an appeal and acceded to the Santa Margarita Water District’s assumption of lead agency authority over the project application and environmental certification. Earlier this year, the county upon a vote by the board of supervisors entered into a memorandum of understanding with Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District that gave the county limited power to second-guess the district’s decision on the environmental certification and compliance with its own ground water management ordinance as well as requiring that Cadiz, Inc. defray the cost of any legal action taken by parties against the project or in reaction to its impacts.
The project still faces four legal challenges.
A brine mining operation in the desert, Tetra Technologies, has already filed a lawsuit against San Bernardino County over the memorandum of understanding. Tetra alleges the monopolization of water in the area will harm its operation.
Four environmental groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society – filed a suit in San Bernardino County Superior Court, naming both the county of San Bernardino and the Santa Margarita Water District. That suit asserts the county should not have allowed the environmental review of the project to be carried out by the Mission Viejo-based Santa Margarita Water District. The suit challenges the county for allowing Santa Margarita to assume lead agency status and calls into question as well the water district’s approval of the environmental impact report.
The Colorado River branch of the Archaeological Heritage Association filed suit in federal court against Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and San Bernardino County, further naming the Santa Margarita Water District, project proponent Cadiz, Inc. and the Cadiz, Inc. corporate offshoot  Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company, as real parties in interest. That suit cited the failure of Salazar and the Department of the Interior to invoke the protocols and requirements of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as the National Environmental Protection Act, which the association maintains should have been done because part of the project will involve a 42-mile right-of-way for the aqueduct on federal land. The suit further alleges the county failed  to live up to its obligation to comply with federal law in reviewing the impact a permitted project might have on federal public resources in transferring the authority for environmental certification of the project to the Santa Margarita Water District.
A group of Orange County residents calling itself  Citizens and Ratepayers Opposing Water Nonsense have sued the Santa Margarita Water District over its approval of the environmental impact report and the water purchase agreement it entered into with Cadiz, Inc.
In addition, Senator Dianne Feinstein has signaled continuing opposition to the project, which is consistent with the stance she took when Cadiz, Inc. floated a similar water mining operation more than a decade ago. In an October 1 letter to board chairwoman Josie Gonzales, Feinsten reiterated that opposition, urging Gonzales and her board colleagues to deny the project endorsement if the amount of groundwater to be extracted from the aquifers exceeds the natural annual recharge rate of the local desert basins, which was determined by the United States Geological Survey in 2001 to be 5,000 acre feet per year.
Only supervisor Neil Derry, whose Third District includes a portion of the East Mojave, voted against the project.
Project proponents asserted the project represented no harm to the desert and its environment, and they said the county should embrace it because it represented economic development and employment opportunities. Opponents retorted that the jobs to be created would be temporary and that the monopolization of the region’s water by areas outside of the county would inhibit or outright prevent future economic growth and development in the Eastern Mojave.

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