As Agency To Oversee Desert-To-OC Pipeline Forms, Some Question If Rowe Has The Fortitude To Ask For Pumps With Dual Directional Capability

Will San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dawn Rowe, whose district includes the East Mojave Desert, allow a wealthy Orange County community to take the desert region’s water for nothing in return?
That is the resounding question being asked by a growing chorus of her constituents.
Since the late 1980s, what was then known as the Cadiz Land Company, has had designs on securing water rights out in a remote locale in the east Mojave Desert to then sell that water for use elsewhere. After obtaining more than 3,000 acres of land near Cadiz, the company began growing organic vegetables and fruits, including beans, melons and tomatoes on a portion of that land. 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.
The Cadiz Land Company seemed to hit pay dirt with its plan when in 1997 the Metropolitan Water District bought into the company’s proposal 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 the 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. To obtain environmental certification of the project, Cadiz, Inc. turned not to San Bernardino County and its board of supervisors, but to the Santa Margarita Water District, which was to be the largest recipient of the water, and its board of directors. 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 moved to block that challenge from occurring, providing then-San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, in whose First District the Cadiz and Fenner valleys and much of the East Mojave were then located, with $48,100 in political donations as he attempted to leapfrog from his position as county supervisor to Congress. In the 2012 primary, Mitzelfelt proved unsuccessful in his effort to qualify for the run-off in the 8th Congressional District race, placing a distant fifth among thirteen candidates. In reaching for the Congressional brass ring, Mitzelfelt had to forgo seeking reelection as supervisor, consigning him 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 Los Angeles-based 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 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 his gaining higher political office.
A literal who’s who of San Bernardino County’s politicians, some of whom were acutely aware of the damage Mitzelfelt did to himself by front-ending for the Cadiz Land Company, have themselves flip-flopped from being in opposition to the Cadiz Land Company’s/Cadiz, Inc.’s effort to capitalize by diverting billions of gallons of water from aquifers beneath California’s East Mojave Desert to Orange and Los Angeles counties to signing on in support of the plan.
Those politicians initially opposed the concept of the company commandeering San Bernardino County’s water for use elsewhere because depriving the East Mojave of the commodity necessary to any future development would have outraged their constituents. But by making direct and substantial donations to those officeholders’ electioneering funds, arranging for the company’s deep-pocketed investors to do the same or, in some cases, hire the politicians, Cadiz, Inc. was able to convince those politicians, one by one, to reverse course and either came out in support of the project or drop their opposition to it.
On November 14, 2014, in a workaround meant to keep the more powerful authority of San Bernardino County’s government structure from being brought to bear, the Santa Margarita Water District and the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company entered into a joint exercise of powers agreement, creating the Fenner Valley Water Authority, a move intended to facilitate the project. In practical terms, the move transferred control over water within one of San Bernardino County’s aquifers to entities outside San Bernardino County.
Despite Cadiz, Inc. lining up as many political and administrative ducks on either side of the San Bernardino County/Orange County boundary in favor of the undertaking as it could, in the intervening decade, a succession of environmental challenges and lawsuits together with administrative and regulatory maneuvering at the state and federal legislative levels delayed the implementation of the project. In particular, California Senator Dianne Feinstein was particularly effective in triggering safeguards layered into the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 and subsequent iterations of that law to prevent the project from advancing. In addition, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, using her lawmaker’s pen, created state legislation that subjected the project to strict evaluations and requirements that before water can be drafted out of the desert in the quantities envisaged by Cadiz, Inc., a host of reviews of the impact must first be carried out by state land, water and wildlife officials to determine if the proposed groundwater extractions will harm the desert’s ecology.
More recently, with Feinstein in the twilight of her tenure in the Senate and her mental acuity diminishing, her focus on desert water issues has lapsed. Likewise, with Friedman intent on making a transition from the state legislature to Congress in 2024, her attention to the Cadiz, Inc. project has been significantly attenuated.
The company, having postponed for more than two decades any show of profit whatsoever while making repeated assurances to investors that actuation of its water importation plan is just beyond the bend, has resolved to act now, while Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe is serving in the capacity of chairwoman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Cadiz, Inc.’s corporate leadership considers Rowe, in whose jurisdiction the Fenner Valley is located, to be too weak politically to effectively act to protect the region’s water supply for exclusive use in the region. Moreover, Rowe is due to seek reelection in 2024, and is vulnerable to a challenge by Chris Carrillo, who has declared his candidacy in the Third District in next year’s election. Because of that vulnerability, Cadiz, Inc. believes hefty political donations to Rowe from a multitude of the company’s investors will convince her to stand down in any effort to block the project from proceeding.
Cadiz, Inc. is already well-versed in applying money to persuade San Bernardino County’s politicians to desist in their efforts to prevent the diversion of the desert’s water to Orange County. One of Rowe’s predecessors as Third District supervisor, Neil Derry, proved to be the most vociferous opponent of San Bernardino County surrendering the role of lead agency in considering the environmental impact report for the project. Derry was roundly critical of Mitzelfelt for militating on behalf of the Cadiz Land Company/Cadiz, Inc. After Derry left the board of supervisors in 2012, he went to work for Desmond & Louis Communications as the senior vice president of public affairs. Shortly thereafter, Cadiz, Inc. retained Desmond & Louis to represent it, at which point Derry found himself promoting the Cadiz Water project.
In 2012, Paul Cook, the former mayor of the Town of Apple, was then a member of the California Assembly running for U.S. Congress representing the 8th Congressional District, which includes the eastern Mojave Desert. Vying against him in that race was Mitzelfelt. In the midst of his campaign for Congress, Cook called for a federal review of the Cadiz Valley Water Project.
Dashing off a letter to then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Cook stated, “The Cadiz Project, as it currently stands, is likely to impact San Bernardino County’s water resources, harming ranchers, rural communities, East Mojave landowners, and the National Chloride Company of America’s brine mining operation on Bristol Dry Lake. Moreover, the aggressive project pumping could harm the springs of the Mojave National Preserve and regional air quality, while exporting precious water resources out of San Bernardino County to ratepayers in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In order to ensure this project won’t adversely affect my district, I respectfully request the Cadiz Project be subject to a National Environmental Policy Act review. Additionally, I request that the United States Geologic Survey conduct an updated analysis of the hydrologic features of the project area and that any new or revised Cadiz Project proposals adhere to the principle of sustainable yield, meaning no more water would be pumped out of the aquifer than would be replaced through natural recharge as determined by the United States Geologic Survey. Professional independent reviews have called into question the 32,500 acre-feet per year recharge rate Cadiz Inc. claims will naturally occur. These independent scientists concluded that the actual recharge rate is between 2,000 and 10,000 acre feet per year. There are serious doubts about the validity of the previous environmental studies, specifically the draft environmental impact statement.”
Cook was elected to Congress in November 2012. After Cadiz, Inc. and several of its investors surfaced as major contributors to Cook’s congressional reelection campaign, in 2014 he publicly stated that he was in favor of the project proceeding. Of note, working for Cook in 2014 as a member of his Congressional staff was Dawn Rowe. In 2020, Cook left Congress to successfully run for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors representing the First District, which extends into a portion of the East Mojave.
Robert Lovingood was one of seven candidates who vied for the opportunity to replace Mitzelfelt as First District supervisor in the June 2012 Primary when the latter opted to instead run for Congress. Lovingood took first place in the primary, thereby qualifying for the run-off for supervisor in November 2012, a race he won. During that campaign, he was critical of the county’s failure to wrest the role of lead agency from the Santa Margarita Water District in considering the environmental impact report for the project. After he was in office and Cadiz, Inc. and several of its major investors made donations to his political campaign fund, Lovingood soft-pedaled on making any statements in opposition to the project. There was nothing illegal in efforts to divert water from one area of California to another, Lovingood said, pointing out that it had been done numerous times in the past, including most famously, he said, with massive water importations from Inyo County to metropolitan Los Angeles. He declined at several junctures while he remained in the role of supervisor until 2020, to speak out in opposition to the Cadiz Water Project.
With the redistricting that took place in the county in 2012 following the 2010 Census, the portion of the East Mojave including Cadiz was moved out of the First Supervisorial District and into the Third District.
The next crucial phase of the long-delayed Cadiz Water Project is the physical creation of the 44-mile pipeline to convey the water to the Metropolitan Water District’s existing aqueduct so the water can make its way more than 210 miles from its source in the desert, consisting of a well field in the Cadiz Valley/Fenner Gap, ultimately to Rancho Santa Margarita.
Earlier this year, the Santa Margarita Water District and Fenner Gap Mutual Water Company offered to create an opportunity for San Bernardino County to participate as an ex officio member of the Fenner Valley Water Authority. The intent was that in making a determination of how it would proceed with the creation of the water pipeline and what standards that infrastructure would meet, the authority, by having the county participating as one of its joint powers members, in approving the project would put the county’s imprimatur on the undertaking. This, corporate officers with Cadiz, Inc. and officials with the Santa Margarita Water District figured, would reduce the likelihood that the county might exercise any element of its land use, planning or regulatory oversight to prevent or delay the project from proceeding. In extending the invitation to San Bernardino County to participate in the Fenner Valley Water Authority, the Santa Margarita Water District and Cadiz, Inc., as the entities in actual control of the Cadiz Water Project, limited the invitation to the county serving only as an ex officio member, without a vote on the Fenner Valley Water Authority board.
The county board of supervisors considered the offer, in the form of a joinder to the Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement relating to the Fenner Valley Water Authority, at its August 22 meeting, simultaneously considering the appointment of Supervisor Dawn Rowe as the San Bernardino County director and Supervisor Curt Hagman as the San Bernardino County alternate director for the board of directors of the Fenner Valley Water Authority for an initial two-year term, effective retroactively as of July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2025.
The board of supervisors, with supervisor Paul Cook absent, approved the joinder.
Even before the board of supervisors’ vote, a cross section of San Bernardino County residents, the majority of those being ones who live in the East Mojave, reraised, or sought to reraise, an issue that previously the Santa Margarita Water District Board of Directors and the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, when it counted among its members Mitzelfelt, Lovingood and Cook, and refused to take up. That issue extended to the design of the 217 miles of pipeline is to run between Cadiz and Rancho Santa Margarita and the appurtenances to that pipeline. Specifically, advocates for San Bernardino County and the East Mojave want Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District to design the 44 miles of pipeline to be built with omni-directional pumps and lifting stations to allow water to not only flow from the Cadiz Valley/Fenner Gap westward to where it meets the existing Metropolitan Water District aqueduct, but eastward from the existing aqueduct back to Cadiz. Furthermore, they want Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District to coordinate with the Metropolitan Water District to augment the remaining 173-miles of existing aqueduct from the point where it meets the yet-to-be-built 44-mile pipeline from Cadiz to Rancho Santa Margarita with omni-directional pumps and lifting stations such that water originating in Orange County can flow into the pipeline and be pumped eastward either part of the way or entirely to Cadiz. Accompanying that request is that both Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District be required to augment the project at various junctures along the line and aqueduct through San Bernardino County with reservoirs. In this way, those advocates propose, not only will the system to be constructed be capable of delivering water originating in the Cadiz Valley to Orange County at those times when Orange County is laboring under drought conditions, it would also facilitate water originating in Orange County being conveyed to various spots along the periphery of the pipeline in San Bernardino County when San Bernardino County finds itself in the midst of a drought which could be relieved by the importation of water from Orange County. Those advocates say that San Bernardino County officials should make the final approval of the project conditional upon Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District agreeing to adjust the project so that Orange County is equally committed to assisting San Bernardino County in times of drought as San Bernardino County is committed to assisting Orange County during its struggles with water availability.
Some San Bernardino County residents have previously observed that Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District having not already designed the pipeline with omni-directional pumps, lifting stations and reservoirs is an indication that the project is intended to exploit San Bernardino County and the East Mojave by removing the latter region’s water without a commensurate arrangement to provide San Bernardino County with water from Orange County when circumstances create such a need.
The Sentinel this week sought to reach Chairwoman Rowe to ascertain from her if in her representation of San Bernardino County as a board member with the Fenner Valley Water Authority she would be willing to press her colleagues on that board to make provisions for the pipeline design to include omni-directional pumps and lift stations to allow water to be pumped through it eastward. Rowe did not respond by press time.
-Mark Gutglueck

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