By Matthew Renda, Courthouse News
Environmental groups sued the Trump administration in federal court on Tuesday, claiming its approval of a project that aims to pump billions of gallons from desert aquifers in California’s Mojave Desert to supply thirsty coastal cities is illegal.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety filed the suit against the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Los Angeles federal court over the Trump administration’s decision to erase an Obama-era legal analysis that concluded Cadiz, a private water company, could not use a federal right-of-way for anything besides its designated purpose as a railway.
The Trump administration reversed the decision in mid-October, paving the way for the construction of a 43-mile water pipeline that aims to siphon 16 billion gallons of water annually from ancient desert aquifers.
“The Cadiz project will suck the desert dry while developers count their money,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “It’s an unsustainable water-privatization scheme. Pumping ancient groundwater from the Mojave Desert to water suburban lawns in Orange County will devastate desert wildlife and the entire ecosystem relying on that water for survival.”
The suit says that along with the environmental hazards presented to a fragile desert ecosystem, the water in question has significant concentrations of toxic material.
“The desert aquifers that Cadiz, Inc. intends to drain are high in hexavalent chromium, a powerful carcinogen, and other heavy metals like arsenic and mercury,” according to the complaint. “Health experts have concluded that the Cadiz Project will produce water laced with toxins that could pose a serious risk to consumers.”
The Department of the Interior referred inquiries to the Department of Justice, which did not return a request for comment by press time.
Cadiz is not named as a party in the suit, but it slammed the plaintiffs in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon.
“The Center for Biological Diversity and its co-litigants have already lost every case they have previously brought challenging this safe and sustainable project, and have now put themselves in the ridiculous and untenable position of opposing the safest, most environmentally sensitive route for our pipeline – a disturbed existing active railroad corridor – in their naked attempt to delay water and jobs for Southern California,” the company said.
Cadiz also categorically refutes the centers’ allegations that the water is contaminated, saying it meets state and federal drinking water standards without treatment. It added that the project would not harm the Mojave Desert, noting the project has undergone extensive environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act and received approval from public agencies including San Bernardino County.
BLM legal analysts in the Obama administration released a 2015 legal evaluation of the pipeline and said a railroad right-of-way could not be used for purposes apart from the operation of a railroad, which effectively ended Cadiz’s bid to build the project along the tracks at the time.
However, Cadiz and its CEO Scott Slater – who is also part of the high-powered Denver-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck – got the Trump-era BLM to see things differently. The law firm has frequently lobbied the U.S. Department of the Interior and fostered connections with Donald Trump’s presidential transition team.
Cadiz said the 2015 determination was flawed “because it failed to apply the law and broke with long-standing federal policy encouraging less impactful co-location of infrastructure in railroad right of ways.”
Despite already undertaking the CEQA process as part of the project, the California State Lands Commission says the pipeline will cross a segment of state-owned land and will require a lease and further environmental analysis.
Cadiz has brushed off the commission’s gambit, saying the agency had plenty of time to throw its hat in the ring during the first round of environmental assessments.
The lands commission isn’t the only powerful player lining up to oppose the project. Democratic senator from California Dianne Feinstein has long made her enmity to the project known. She has even urged state legislators to introduce a bill to require another round of environmental reviews.
Environmentalists point to an independent analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey that shows Cadiz plans to withdraw 50,000 acre-feet of water per year for 50 years, more than five times the recharge rate in the rain-starved portion of California.
Opponents also say the three valleys in the Mojave – the Fenner, Bristol and Cadiz valleys – teem with life, both flora and fauna, that rely on aquifers that have been in place for centuries.
Other critics say the project is unnecessary, particularly as Southern California attempts to solve water problems with 21st-century solutions like water recycling and desalination plants and watershed restoration projects focused on rehabilitating the Los Angeles River.
“Cadiz, Inc. is just another corporation looking to profit by selling off an irreplaceable public resource,” Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice who is representing the groups filing suit, said in a statement. “The Trump administration would love to give Cadiz a free pass around our environmental laws, but we’re not going to let that happen.”