Water project bill fails to advance

September 03, 2018

By Melanie Mason

A last-ditch effort to impose additional environmental review on a controversial groundwater pumping project in the Mojave Desert sputtered Friday night after a key state Senate committee held the bill over concerns about legislative process.

The measure, Senate Bill 120, would have given the state Lands Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife the authority to study the project by Cadiz Inc. to make sure the pumping would not harm surrounding lands.

A similar measure was shelved by the Senate last year. Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) revived the proposal in recent days using a legislative maneuver called a gut-and-amend, or inserting a new policy into an existing, unrelated bill.

“We hit that pause button in order to make sure we get the science right,” Roth said in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday.

“If Cadiz has it wrong, if we get it wrong, who is going to accept responsibility for this?” he added. “We can’t afford to get it wrong.”

Roth’s bill had several high-profile backers, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. But Cadiz strongly opposed the measure, arguing the project has already been scrutinized under the California Environmental Quality Act and won several lawsuits against it.

Labor groups also opposed the bill, arguing it would squelch jobs.

“What are we telling investors in projects, that they can invest 20 years of time, tens of millions of dollars of pre-construction costs and go through the entire process and meet everything that this Legislature has set before them to just have the rug ripped out from underneath them and threaten 6,000 jobs in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the state of California?” said Scott Wetch, lobbyist for the California State Pipe Trades Council.

The measure cleared the Assembly last week, but prospects looked shakier in the Senate, where the attempt to impede the Cadiz project had previously faltered in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), chairman of the committee, said he objected to how SB 120 was resurrected, which he said would have undermined the decision of the panel’s prior chair.

“I actually support where you’re trying to do in the bill,” Portantino said. “But I have to stand up for the integrity of the House. I have to stand up for how we do what we do.”

Cadiz cheered the outcome.

“SB 120 was an attempt by its proponents at the 11th hour of session to change the rules of the game for Cadiz, but the bill also risked so much more — water reliability, jobs and the integrity of California’s environmental laws,” spokeswoman Courtney Degener said. “We are proud to have been a part of a wide coalition of more than 70 organizations that quickly opposed SB 120 and appreciative of the respect for the legislative process expressed by the Senate tonight.”

Environmental groups blasted the move, with one pinning the blame on Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego).

“Senate leadership let down the people of California tonight by not allowing a final vote on SB 120,” David Lamfrom, California Desert director for the National Parks Conservation Assn., said in a statement. “All eyes were on Sen. Toni Atkins and leadership following the assembly passage of a common-sense bill to ensure science was incorporated into an industrial, desert water mining project. Blocking a final vote on SB 120 furthers Trump administration actions to remove required federal review of the Cadiz project.”

In a statement after the hearing, Roth indicated he would continue to press the issue next year.

“The facts speak for themselves, and will be discussed again by myself and my colleagues,” Roth said. “The science of the Cadiz Water Project is based on a flawed process led by a self-interested agency. The discrepancies between numbers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Cadiz Inc. are alarming at best and dangerous at worst — imperiling an entire ecosystem. I am steadfast in my resolve and the conversation will continue.”