Santa Margarita Postpones Cadiz Water Project Decision To Next Week

(July 27)  The governing board of the Santa Margarita Water District this week postponed until next week a vote on certifying the environmental impact report for the controversial Cadiz Valley Water Project.
Officially referred to as the Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, if approved it would provide the Cadiz Land Company, also known as Cadiz, Inc. with permission to pump an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year out of the aquifer in San Bernardino County’s Eastern Mojave Desert and convey it in a pipeline to Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties to replenish the water supply there.
The Santa Margarita Water District, the second largest water district in Orange County that serves an area more than 200 miles from the Cadiz Valley, is the lead agency for the project, overseeing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process for the project’s permitting.
After Cadiz, Inc. completes the project, which entails the sinking of 34 wells into the desert and construction of a 44-mile pipeline along a railroad right-of-way until it meets up with the aqueduct that carries Colorado River water to the Los Angeles and Orange County metropolitan areas, the company  will sell the extracted water to the  Santa Margarita Water District; 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.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors acceded to the Santa Margarita Water District’s assumption of lead agency authority over the project application and environmental certification and 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 has garnered considerable opposition, particularly in San Bernardino County and the East Mojave Desert, where the Cadiz Valley is located. A brine mining operation in the desert, Tetra Technologies, has already filed a lawsuit against San Bernardino County over the memorandum of understanding.
On the evening of July 25 and early morning hours of July 26, the governing board of the Santa Margarita Water District met in Santa Margarita in the largest meeting room within the Norman P. Murray Community Center, which was filled to capacity. 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.
An overview of the project was provided by Santa Margarita general manager Dan Ferons. Leslie Moulton, one of the employees of the Los Angeles-based firm, ESA, which prepared the environmental impact report, gave a Powerpoint summarization of the environmental impact report (EIR). Statements limited to three minutes were then heard from several of those gathered at Copper Mountain College. Most of those speaking from that location were opposed to the project and the environmental certification, though some said they endorsed the project and hailed it as one that would provide some level of economic revitalization to the desert. Notable among the speakers against the project at the desert location was current Needles mayor Ed Paget. His statements were countered by a statement by his predecessor as mayor, Jeff Williams, who is currently the Needles Chamber of Commerce president, which was read into the record by another individual.
After those speaking from the desert location were heard, the board heard statements from those on hand at the Murray Center. Many speaking at that venue, including Cadiz, Inc. president Scott Slater, Cadiz, Inc. chief financial officer Timothy Shaheen, former Rancho Santa Margarita city councilman Gary Thompson, former councilman and mayor Jim Thor and others endorsed the project, characterizing it as one that would ensure water availability to the community served by the Santa Margarita Water District into the future. Slater said his company had incorporated changes in the project plan based upon an earlier version of a water conservation and extraction plan in the East Mojave his company had proposed in conjunction with the Metropolitan Water District that had been abandoned a decade ago and input from project supporters and opponents. He called the current plan an innovative approach to dealing with the region’s water shortage. Shaheen dismissed as inaccurate claims that Cadiz, Inc. was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI for making misrepresentations to its investors and he said that it was not true that investors had lost faith in the company.
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 he was concerned that the memorandum of understanding between the county, Cadiz, Inc. and Santa Margarita Water District had been entered into before a groundwater management plan for the Cadiz project was adopted. He said this violated the terms of the 2002 ordinance.
Al Vogler, a Hesperia resident who had sojourned to Orange County to attend the hearing, questioned the viability of the water selling arrangement, saying the $1,127 per acre foot Cadiz, Inc. was seeking to sell the water to Santa Margarita for was far less economical than water available from the California Aqueduct at $400 an acre-foot.
Former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook said that there were “incestuous relationships” between the district’s leadership and Cadiz, Inc. and that the district’s agreement to purchase the water from Cadiz, Inc. was made during an “illegal closed session” more than three years ago. She said the district had an inability to consider the full implication of the project because of “bureaucratic malaise.” She told the board, “You haven’t considered the risks to your agency if Cadiz goes bankrupt.”
Charles Collett, an attorney from Newport Beach who with his brother owns property in the Cadiz Valley on which a well is located, said he was opposed to the project because “it will be taking out more water than will go in. There are uncertainties in the hydrologic methods. There are representations that Cadiz, Inc. is taking the risk but a lot more scientific study needs to be accomplished before you consider the EIR and decide on it. “
Collett said that if pumping in the Cadiz Valley is initiated that make his well run dry “I will file a lawsuit and there will be other lawsuits that will affect the cost of your water.”
Ruth Musser Lopez of Needles said the Santa Margarita Water District serving as the lead agency on the environmental certification of the project was “an abuse of power” that made it so that the desert’s residents “do not have a say in this.” She said the district had involved itself in a criminal conflict of interest when it entered into an agreement with Cadiz, Inc. to be reimbursed for the processing costs for the environmental impact report and other work related to the project conditional upon its approval of the environmental impact report and the water purchase agreement.
In total, more than 80 individuals in Yucca Valley and Rancho Santa Margarita addressed the board throughout the evening and early morning.
The board was presented with voluminous written documentation from multiple individuals during the course of the hearing. Coincidentally, earlier in the day Governor Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled a proposal to construct a massive $14 billion twin tunnel system to carry water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farms located as well as 25 million Californians living between the Bay Area and San Diego.
The board voted to postpone its consideration of the Cadiz project until a specially called meeting in a smaller room within the Murray Center on Tuesday July 31.
At the conclusion of the meeting just before 1 a.m. July 26, Slater told the Sentinel he “thought the meeting was open and transparent. I appreciate the opportunity this gave the public to express their points of view.”

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