New Lawsuit Targets Cadiz Water Project

Orange County's next source of water? | Photo: Aquafornia/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A massive proposed project that would pump billions of gallons of water a year from one of the most arid ecosystems in the U.S. to irrigate coastal California lawns suffered a setback last week as four environmental organizations filed suit to have the project's Environmental Impact Report (EIR) tossed out. The groups filing suit maintain that the EIR is inadequate, and that an Orange County water district improperly acted as lead agency in preparing the EIR -- and that San Bernardino County improperly allowed the water district to do so.

The lawsuit, filed August 31 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the San Bernardino Audubon Society, maintains that approval of the Cadiz project's EIR in July by the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) violated state environmental law.

The EIR for the Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, which project would drill wells into the Cadiz and Fenner valleys in the East Mojave and ship 50,000 acre-feet of desert groundwater to Orange County and the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, was accepted July 31 by SMWD, which serves the affluent community of Rancho Santa Margarita. SMWD has acted as lead agency during the Cadiz project's environmental assessment process.

The suit asks the court to toss out that EIR and declare San Bernardino County the proper lead agency for the project, essentially setting the project back as much as a couple of years -- a dire outcome for Cadiz, Inc., which could really use some actual income before tens of millions of dollars in loans come due in June 2013.

The Cadiz project's main backers, Cadiz Inc., maintain that the majority of the 50,000 acre-feet of water that the project would extract from the Mojave Desert ecosystem would otherwise be lost to evaporation, and that the project is thus properly regarded as a "conservation" effort. Cadiz's hydrological figuring has been challenged by independent scientists. In its comments on the project's EIR, the Oakland-based water think tank Pacific Institute slammed Cadiz's claims that the project would conserve water in the long term:

Environmentalist opposition to the project generally centers on the potential effects on springs in nearby wilderness areas and the Mojave National Preserve. A previous lawsuit against the project and its EIR, filed by the Tetra Technologies corporation, focuses on the economic impact of groundwater pumping on neighboring salt mining.

Reading through the language of last week's legal filing, it's hard to imagine that at least some of the allegations made by plaintiffs won't get some traction in court. The charges include the plaintiffs' contention that Cadiz's title for the project is misleading:

The plaintiffs contend that Cadiz and SMWD should have included the Metropolitan Water District, state or regional water resources control boards, and the California Department of Fish and Game, and the state Department of Water Resources as responsible agencies in the EIR drafting process. Cadiz and SMWD didn't do so.

The lawsuit also challenges the project's stated figures on the amount of water to be pumped from the Mojave:

Also among the charges in the lawsuit's language: that Cadiz and SMWD have "piecemealed" their environmental analysis of the project, omitting any consideration of the project's "Phase II," which would involve pumping water from the Colorado River during wet years to pump into the aquifer for later distribution to Cadiz's customers, the "Storage" part of "Conservation, Recovery and Storage."

"On behalf of our over 90,000 California members and supporters, we sent a strong message to the Santa Margarita Water District that this ill-conceived project was a significant threat to the Mojave Desert in general and the Mojave National Preserve in particular," Seth Shteir, California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a press release annoucning the lawsuit. "Our voice -- and the law -- was disregarded throughout this process, and taking legal action is our only viable next step."

"This shortsighted water grab will benefit those pushing more sprawl in Orange County, but it'll rob some of California's rare species of the water they need to survive," added Adam Lazar, the Center for Biological Diversity attorney filing the lawsuit. "Our desert, the residents of San Bernardino County and Orange County ratepayers all deserve better."

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.