In Latest Move To Nix Cadiz H2O Grab, Feinstein Cites Chromium Contamination

With legislation introduced in July by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman that would have required far stricter environmental review of the Cadiz Water Project yet languishing at the committee level at the end of the just concluded legislative session, Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement which underscores the presence of contaminants in water to be drawn out of the aquifer in the East Mojave. Feinstein said the introduction of that water into the aqueduct that is already being used to convey Colorado River water to the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area could represent an unacceptable threat to the Southern California region’s water supply.
Corporate officials promoting the project dispute Feinstein’s assertion.
Beginning in the late 1980s, what was then known as the Cadiz Land Company sunk a well in the Cadiz Valley and initiated an organic farming operation growing tomatoes, peppers, melons, grapes and citrus. Throughout its existence, the Cadiz farming operation failed to operate at a profit. But in the meantime, it was able to make an assertion, based upon the irrigation of the crops at the Cadiz farm, to water rights from the Cadiz/Fenner aquifer. By the late 1990s, it was clear that the Cadiz Land Company’s true design was on securing water rights out in a remote locale in the Mojave Desert to then sell that water for use elsewhere. The company seemed to hit pay dirt with its plan when 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 referenced as “surplus” Colorado River water to Cadiz 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 Cadiz 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. An extensive round of litigation between the Cadiz Land Company and the Metropolitan Water District ensued.
The concept lay dormant for six years but in 2008, the Cadiz Land Company, by then known as Cadiz, Inc., revived the plan in modified form, emphasizing less the drawing of water from the Colorado River and instead proposing to obtain water from sources feeding the desert area’s dry lakes that are subject to 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. Then, 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.
A contingent of San Bernardino County residents protested 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, based on the consideration that the district lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley across the county line from San Bernardino County. San Bernardino County could have contested that arrangement in court, but Cadiz, Inc. effectively muted that by providing 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 $48,100 in political donations as he attempted to vault from his position as county supervisor to Congress. In the June 2012 primary, Mitzelfelt proved unsuccessful in his effort to get into the 8th Congressional District race runoff in November 2012, placing a distant fifth among thirteen candidates, in no small part because his support of the Cadiz Project was so unpopular with his constituents. In seeking to transition into Congress in 2012, Mitzelfelt had to forgo seeking reelection as supervisor that same year. Thus, he was consigned 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 became known as 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 higher political office.
Over the next five years, a succession of environmental challenges and lawsuits delayed the implementation of the project. Cadiz, Inc. has succeeded in overcoming all of those lawsuits, nearly all of which were heard in Orange County Superior Court.
One remaining snag holding up the project was a 2015 U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision that Cadiz, Inc. could not use the existing federal railroad right-of-way for the water pipeline it intends to construct to convey water drawn from the aquifer to the Colorado River Aqueduct. This carried with it the requirement that the company go through a federal environmental review, under the National Environmental Policy Act, delaying the project and adding to its expense. At issue is the degree to which railroads are at liberty to allow their rights-of-way to be used for non-railroad purposes. A railroad right-of-way can accommodate a water pipeline if the water is to be used by the railroad, but the use of steam engines went out of vogue last century. In 1989, an Interior Department solicitor concluded that an 1875 railroad law allowed railroads to authorize other uses without Department of the Interior approval. A subsequent solicitor’s opinion altered that conclusion to state other uses had to “derive from or further” a railroad purpose. The California Bureau of Land Management office later found that “conveyance of water for public consumption is not a railroad purpose.”
In March, the Donald Trump Administration, in the form of a blanket memo from a Bureau of Land Management acting assistant director, revoked two of the legal bases for the agency’s 2015 decision blocking the Cadiz project. This prompted Cadiz to reapply with the federal government for permission to proceed, in turn galvanizing Senator Feinstein, D-California, who was the lead sponsor of the1994 California Desert Protection Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton and the sponsor of the California Desert Protection Act of 2011, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015 and the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act of 2017, and a longtime opponent of Cadiz, Inc.’s designs on desert water. Feinstein consulted with Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, who in July altered the language of pending legislation, AB 1000, which originally pertained to water meter standards, to halt significant desert water pumping until state land and wildlife officials review the proposed groundwater extractions to first certify they will not harm the desert’s ecology.
Though the Cadiz Project was not mentioned specifically in the legislation, Friedman acknowledged the alteration of AB 1000 came in response to the Trump Administration’s prioritization of the Cadiz Water Project. “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 from Cadiz, Inc. and its corporate officers, who characterized what she was engaged in as “flawed legislation” and an effort to derail the project.
The bill did not make it past California Senate Appropriations Committee, where it lay dormant at the end of the legislative session.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens and Kevin de León D-Los Angeles, the Senate President Pro Tempore, effectively blocked its release. Lara, asserting the project had already been subject to the rigors of the California Environmental Quality Act, said, “That process should be allowed to play out.” De León in whose district the Cadiz corporate headquarters is located, has received $9,100 in political contributions from Cadiz, Inc., $4,100 for his California Senate campaign in 2014 and $5,000 in June of this year for his planned run for lieutenant governor next year.
In recent weeks, the environmental wing of the Democratic Party in California has begun an intensive lobbying effort of de León, who has touted his legislative accomplishments on a number of climate change-related, clean energy, energy efficiency, environmental and anti-pollution bills.
In this way, it appears that Feinstein may have been seeking to communicate, in a substantially public way, with de León when she issued a statement referencing surveys showing that there is hexavalent chromium, an extremely toxic chemical, present in the Cadiz/Fenner water table.
“For close to two decades, Cadiz has been trying to ram through a water extraction project that would harm the Mojave Desert. And now we hear from the Metropolitan Water District that the water Cadiz wants to extract could contain dangerous chemicals that pose a threat to the safety of Southern California’s water supply,” Feinstein said. “The water that Cadiz plans to extract contains numerous contaminants including arsenic and cancer-causing Chromium-6. Left untreated, it could pollute the pristine water of the Colorado River Aqueduct, endangering the health of not only Cadiz’s customers but all 19 million Californians who rely on that water.”
Feinstein has been in contact with the Metropolitan Water District, which was once on the verge of working with Cadiz, Inc.’s corporate predecessor on a water storage and extraction project in the East Mojave but then became embroiled in extended litigation against the company with regard to Cadiz’s plan to use its aqueduct.
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger wrote Feinstein on September 15, stating that “much about [the water conveyance arrangement] is still unknown.”
Cadiz, Inc. has yet to make a formal application to actually use the metropolitan aqueduct.
Courtney Degener, the official spokeswoman for Cadiz, Inc., passed this statement on behalf of the company to the Sentinel: “Senator Feinstein issued a press release regarding a risk she claims is presented by conserved water that will be delivered from the Cadiz Water Project to Southern California communities. We are stunned and disappointed by the allegations made by Senator Feinstein, which reflect a lack of understanding of the project and disregard for state requirements that all drinking water meet federal and state standards issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Division of Drinking Water. Her statement suggests that Cadiz water might be delivered to consumers without satisfying these standards; this is irresponsible and not true.”
Degener said, “Water quality at Cadiz is regularly tested using licensed professional laboratory services, is the subject of annual reports to San Bernardino County and was extensively surveyed in connection with the comprehensive court-approved environmental impact report (EIR) for the Cadiz Water Project. Cadiz water quality, as described in the EIR, is below current state and federal maximum contaminant levels. Total dissolved solids of the Cadiz supply are considerably lower than both the maximum contaminant levels and the amount in the Colorado River Aqueduct and would reduce the service area’s treatment requirements, a benefit valued at nearly $400 million.”
Degener added that “Delivery of Cadiz groundwater to the Colorado River Aqueduct will be done in full accordance with applicable federal and state standards. Cost-effective and permitted treatment technologies are available to reduce constituents below existing state and federal standards should such treatment be necessary in the future. Importantly, no water from Cadiz would ever enter the Colorado River Aqueduct that does not meet all local, state and federal standards and no water will reach consumers unless it satisfies these same standards. It is misleading and shameful for the senator to suggest that the state and federal drinking water regulatory system would or could be bypassed or that the water conserved by Cadiz will put the public at risk.”        -Mark Gutglueck

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