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Little-watched water districts helping Trump administration drain California desert

by Char Miller, Pomona College professor of environmental analysis

When you think about potential new water sources for Southern California, the driest desert in North America isn’t likely to be the first place that springs to mind. But the controversial Cadiz water project has managed to keep that preposterous scenario afloat for decades.

Cadiz’s unlikely plan would have them pump 16 billion gallons of groundwater each year from beneath Mojave Trails National Monument for sale to east San Gabriel Valley cities like Claremont, Pomona, La Verne and Covina—cities that would be better off investing in water conservation and recycling to stretch their supplies.

It’s a mess that involves a group of obscure public agencies hopscotched across the region. You might even get your tap water from one of them.

So far, publicly-held Cadiz Inc. has evaded adequate environmental review of its project, funneling its state review through its lead customer, Orange County’s Santa Margarita Water District. It’s also taking advantage of its connections in the Trump administration to sidestep federal oversight altogether as its former lawyer is currently Deputy Interior Secretary.

 Its political muscle has run into a scientific problem, however. Scientists have demonstrated that the aquifer Cadiz would mine feeds several springs in the arid Mojave. Suck up that groundwater, and those springs disappear, with disastrous effects on imperiled wildlife.

California is stepping up to make sure the project’s likely environmental impacts get a hard look from objective scientists. State Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) has introduced SB 307, legislation that would require state agencies to assess the project and the damage it would cause to springs and desert wildlife. 

Cadiz is trying to deflect this criticism by claiming that its woefully flawed groundwater management plan will protect the environment if they start pumping. Environmental activists counter that Cadiz’s plan is based on scientific assumptions that geologists already have disproven.

 To challenge this scientific data, Cadiz is using Three Valleys Municipal Water District in eastern Los Angeles County and the Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County to co-sponsor what they’re calling a “peer review” of its groundwater plan, written by four scientific consultants.

That report was released at a special meeting of the Three Valleys board in March. Unsurprisingly, those Cadiz-sponsored “experts” concluded that Cadiz’s project won’t hurt the desert. Embarrassingly for Three Valleys, critics revealed at that meeting that three of the four authors of the “peer review” were longtime Cadiz supporters, and the whole thing was paid for by Cadiz with the money funneled through an intermediary. 

The so-called “independent peer review” of the Cadiz plan, in other words, was neither independent nor a peer review. It was yet another corporate-sponsored PR campaign masquerading as objective science.

It’s a shame that instead of providing a real fact-check of Cadiz’s claims, the Three Valleys MWD decided to prop up Cadiz’s increasingly discredited project. Despite this, Three Valleys’ gaffe serves a larger public good. It is a stark reminder of the importance of having truly independent scientists examine all such water schemes in California.

It also underscores why California lawmakers must pass SB 307 to stop the Cadiz project. That will free Three Valleys to focus on adopting water-conservation technologies and strategies that will create a more resilient region in this climate-changed era.

 

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