Orange County District Approves EIR To Extract Mojave Water

(August 3)  In an event of historical significance, the Orange County-based Santa Margarita Water District on July 31 certified the environmental impact report for the Cadiz Water project, clearing the way for Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. to extract an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year for the next century from the eastern Mojave Desert and send it via pipeline westward to Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
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, 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.
There was particular objection to the Santa Margarita Water District’s assumption of lead agency status on the project, officially known as the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation and Recovery Project, despite the considerations that the district lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley across the county line from San Bernardino County and the district has an interest in the project in that some 20 percent of the water to be mined by Cadiz, Inc. will be sold to Santa Margarita. A secondary action taken by the water district Tuesday night was to approve a purchase agreement that outlines the financial terms between the district and Cadiz, Inc.
San Bernardino County officials, who belatedly learned that the Orange County-based water district had taken on the role as the lead agency overseeing the project, contemplated but ultimately rejected contesting the water district’s assumption of that authority, instead entering into a memorandum of understanding with Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District with regard to the undertaking, requiring a ground water mitigation and monitoring program to govern the extraction of the water.
The environmental impact report for the project was performed by the Los Angeles-based firm of ESA.  That environmental review, which describes in some detail the physical aspects of pumping more than 16 billion gallons of groundwater per year from the desert aquifer, essentially said the project would not create havoc on the environment. The environmental impact report (EIR) was paid for by the Santa Margarita Water District, which is now eligible based upon the terms of a prior agreement with Cadiz, Inc., to be reimbursed by Cadiz, Inc. for the environmental impact report expense by having accepted the report as valid. The environmental impact report supported Cadiz, Inc.’s contention that the project would capture water that would be lost to evaporation and that mitigation of any untoward impacts of the project would meet the standards required for such projects under the California Environmental Quality Act.
A number of desert residents and environmentalists questioned that contention, however, taking issue with several particulars in the environmental impact report and project proposal. One area of contention was the assertion that the Cadiz Valley experienced 32,000 acre-feet of water recharge per year. Project opponents cited surveys previously conducted to show that recharge of 5,000 to 12,000 acre feet per year was more accurate. Also contested was Cadiz’s assertion that the project will rely on diverting water that would be lost to evaporation, with opponents questioning how wells sunk several hundred feet below the ground could stem surface evaporation.
On May 25, a salt mining company in the Cadiz Valley, Tetra Technologies, lodged a lawsuit against the county of San Bernardino over the proposed Cadiz Water Project, maintaining the memorandum of understanding the county entered into with the project’s proponents bypasses crucial components of the environmental certification process. That suit, consisting of a petition for a writ of mandate and a complaint for injunctive relief against the county of San Bernardino and its board of supervisors, was filed on behalf of Tetra Technologies by the law firm of Rutan & Tucker. The lawsuit names Cadiz, Inc., the Santa Margarita Water District and the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company, an entity created and wholly owned by Cadiz, Inc., as real parties in interest.
The Santa Margarita Water District board held a previous public hearing on the sufficiency of the environmental impact report and the water purchase on the evening of July 25. That meeting, which extended into the early morning hours of July 26, took place in the largest meeting room within the Norman P. Murray Community Center in Rancho Santa Margarita, which was filled beyond capacity requiring some in attendance to view the proceedings from an adjacent hallway,   A two-way video and audio hook-up to the Bell Center Community Room at Copper Mountain College, where several dozen desert residents had gathered, was incorporated into the meeting. At the July 25/26  hearing more than 90 individuals put their views on the record and provided the board with voluminous written materials to consider. The board deferred until July 31 making its decision, again conducting hearings that included the video feed to and from Copper Mountain College in Yucca Valley.
At the July 31 hearing, a memorandum from Santa Margarita Water District general manager Dan Ferons was referenced which said that the input received at the July 26 hearing had been reviewed by ESA to determine relevancy to the environmental impact review process and that “none of the comments reviewed by ESA… identify new or more significant impacts, substantially different mitigation measures, or substantially different feasible alternatives and as such, the final environmental impact report does not require recirculation.” The board then heard comments from a number of individuals in attendance at both the Santa Margarita and Yucca Valley location.
Those speaking in opposition to the project referenced ecological damage they believed the project would perpetuate, that the removing of water from the desert to quench the thirst of a community near the coast was not justifiable, that the project should also be subjected to the federal environmental certification process since part of the project would be situated on federal land, that it was unsuitable for the Santa Margarita Water District to be serving as an agency overseeing a project outside its jurisdiction and that the district’s acceptance of the environmental impact report and passage of a contract to purchase water from the project would result in litigation. There was also some comment with regard to the presence of contaminants, notably chromium and arsenic, in the water.
Ruth Musser-Lopez, one of the leaders of a loosely-knit coalition against the Cadiz project, said that the arrangement to have Cadiz, Inc. pay for the district’s cost of having the environmental impact report prepared conditional upon the acceptance of the environmental impact report as adequate was an impropriety bordering on bribery that would be grounds to overturn the acceptance of the EIR. She said the project should have been subjected to the federal National Environment Protection Act approval process.
Rob Bower, an attorney for Rutan and Tucker, said the environmental impact report did not include a reasonable range of alternatives.
Marjorie Mikels, an attorney from Upland, said the project was an illegitimate attempt to change state water law.
Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the environmental impact report was an inadequate and fundamentally flawed document that that will not ensure the protection of the Mojave National Preserve’s  springs, groundwater resources and air quality.
Jerie Miller, president of the board of directors of Casa Del Sol, asked, “If this is  such a splendid project, why hasn’t the Metropolitan Water District locked this up? How does evaporation impact water that is several hundred feet under the ground?”
Dr. Karen Tracy said, “Do not certify this EIR. This document is composed of fabricated science by people who were paid to dream it up. There is so much circular logic and self-fulfilling nonsense in this document.” She said the project needed to be subjected to the federal environmental process.
Tom O’Key charged that the project was designed simply to fulfill the imperative of “Orange County prosperity and growth.”
LynAnne Felts said acceptance of the environmental impact report “will open all of our desert aquifers for others to use that water hundreds of miles away.”
John Hildner criticized the members of the board for not spending “much time…at the project site.”
Sequoia Smith said Cadiz’s motivation “amounts to filthy lucre. What is the legacy you wish to leave to these children who are becoming savvy to global and ecological issues?”
David Fick said documentation filed in conjunction with the project application indicated Cadiz had intentions of pumping as much as 150,000 acre-feet per year. “Your project is trying to go under the five percent of the water the desert uses to get to 95 percent of the water,” Fick said. “It is against the laws of science. It is against the law of gravity. It is against the laws of California.”
Douglas Buckley said the district should encourage conservation in its jurisdiction and resort to “charging four times as much” for the water it delivers to teach its customers to “conserve like people in the desert do.”
Debbie Cook, a former Huntington Beach mayor, warned the board that a lawsuit against it by the Center for Biological Diversity was forthcoming.
Kevin Hanaway said he believed there was “contamination in this water.”
Robert Siebert called it a “troublesome project” that was going to be very expensive because of the need for electricity to transport the water a great distance. “You have no idea what the cost of electricity is going to be in the future,” he said.
David Renuart said he had concerns about the presence of contaminants in the water and the possibility this would elevate the incidence of childhood cancer among those who consume it.
F.K. “Joe” Holtzman of the Mission Viejo Homeowners Association said “I applaud you for trying to get water. I do not applaud you for where you are getting it from.” He warned that Orange County was essentially declaring war with San Bernardino County by taking its water. “Some of the greatest battles in the West were over water,” he said, reminding the board that to protect their water, the desert’s residents had four remedies, in his words, “The ballot box, the soap box, the jury box” and when those failed, “the cartridge box.” He said the district should seek to utilize “water wise schedules and conservation” instead of resorting to stealing water from the desert.
Those supporting the project cited south Orange County’s current and future growing need for water, and they hailed the environmental impact report as thorough and adequate, the project as an innovative method of fulfilling the district’s charter to ensure water availability in South Orange County and they commended the board for its collective vision and courage in pursuing the project.
Ramon Mendoza  said the Cadiz project provided “a model that is needed for the entire state of California. This project has taken into consideration desaturization. Desaturization increases the range of water that can be taken  by 69 to 90 percent. This is a good project. I have no idea why the people of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree have any concerns about that project.”
James Thor, a former councilman and mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita, told the board, “South Orange County fully supports this. Certify the EIR tonight.”
Marvin Floyd  said the board should ignore the threats being made to it by opponents of the project. “The job you people are doing is admirable. We support the project and we support the EIR.”
Laer Pearce told the board, “Thank you for your vision. I understand water very well. Reliability is not a given. It takes a lot of hard work.” He said he had the signatures of 220 people who supported the project.
Michelle Ouelette, a contract attorney for the district, said the project was not located on  federal land and therefore did not trigger a requirement that National Environmental Protection Act standards be brought to bear in considering the project.
Board member Betty Olson said she had reviewed the EIR thoroughly and that data collected by EIS this time around which favored the project moving ahead was more reliable than data collected ten years ago that held water extraction from the Cadiz Valley would be harmful to the environment. She said the district had the legal right to sign off on Cadiz, Inc. exporting the water out of the desert region.
“That is an unadjudicated basin and the land owners can move the water,” Olson said. “This EIR is adequate to go forward. If you do not believe this project should go forward than you have the courts and the ballot box.”
Board member Roger Faubel said, “It is a moderate, thoughtful plan.”
Board member Saundra Jacobs, like Olson, said she had thoroughly read the environmental impact report and was convinced  that “in the desert things are in place to protect the environment and habitat and test. California has  a long history of moving water. We now have CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) to safeguard the water.” She said the project would  “not be at the detriment of the environment. I know in my heart we will be a good steward of the water. This public private partnership is a unique opportunity. If we do not move ahead with this project, someone else will. We will drink this water.”
Board chairman Bill Lawson, who by profession is a traffic engineer experienced with environmental impact reports, said, “This is one of the most complex and comprehensive EIRs I have ever had to suffer through. I heard the term bad science used. This is not an exact science. It is the best science we have. Where we don’t know what the science is, there is a program to catch those errors.”
Lawson said he had originally questioned “Why is the Santa Margarita Water District the lead agency for a project that is not in this district?”
Nevertheless, at this point, Lawson said, “I am very comfortable with the Santa Margarita Water District being the lead agency as we are continuing to explore alternative sources of water for our district.”
Both the environmental impact report certification and the water purchase agreement passed by unanimous votes.
Scott Slater, the president of Cadiz, Inc., after the vote told the Sentinel, “We continue to be pleased with the leadership and stewardship of the Santa Margarita Water District and are pleased by the outpouring of support for our project. We pledge to work with San Bernardino County to implement this project we can all be proud of.  We will continue to work with the district and I do not expect any interference as we continue to gather baseline data. I am looking forward to engaging the local community in a legacy discussion for the protection of the desert tortoise, the development of a cultural center and the operation of a tourist steam engine on our property to Rice, Arizona.”

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