Cadiz, environmentalists renew Capitol battle over Mojave Desert groundwater

April 09, 2019

By Debra Kahn, Politico Pro

A bill that would require the State Lands Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife to approve a controversial groundwater pumping project in the Mojave Desert passed its first committee hearing today, but the long-running debate over the aquifer is far from over.

The Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee today approved CA SB307 (19R), which would require the two state agencies to sign off on the Cadiz Water Project, a proposal that has been in the works for decades to pump groundwater out of an aquifer below the desert and sell it to Southern California water agencies.

The bill by Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) would have the agencies determine whether the company's plans would damage habitat or other natural or cultural resources on state or federal land. State officials have raised the possibility that the project would draw enough water to affect nearby Bonanza Spring, which serves as habitat for desert bighorn sheep.

Cadiz opposes the bill, and representatives at today's hearing pushed to clarify the scope of the review and for the Department of Water Resources to take the lead instead of the State Lands Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife. State Controller Betty Yee and then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom supported previous versions of the bill in their time on the State Lands Commission.

Analyses of the aquifer's sustainable yield have varied significantly; Cadiz says it recharges at 32,500 acre-feet per year, while opponents cite a U.S. Geological Survey study that estimated annual recharge of 2,000-10,000 acre-feet.

Cadiz CEO Scott Slater sought to focus attention away from the aquifer and toward the habitat in question. "It's not about whether the recharge rate is 31,400 or 19,100, it's really about ... the consequences, will it cause an impact?" he said.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), a committee member, urged Roth to include a timeline for the state review in order to establish "fair process." He likened the long-running dispute to "Hatfield and McCoy, Palestinians and the Jews."

Roth said he was willing to negotiate. "Am I ready to sit and talk about alternatives?" he asked. "Absolutely."

Defenders of Wildlife California program director Kim Delfino, who testified in support of the bill, said the state review was needed because a 2017 Trump administration move could help the Cadiz project avoid federal environmental review. She said she wasn't optimistic that amending the bill would secure Cadiz's cooperation.

"They want to add in as many sideboards and contingencies to ensure the product they get out will be what they want," she said in an interview. "They have maneuvered and manipulated this process from the beginning, and they want to continue to be able to do that."

The bill heads next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.