An Orange County Superior Court judge lined up six lawsuits filed to stop a controversial groundwater pumping project in the Mojave Desert and shot them all done in one brief legal opinion.
Judge Gail Andler ruled last week that Cadiz Inc. can move forward on its plan to divert surplus water from the Colorado River to an aquifer beneath 35,000 acres of land it owns, augment that supply by capturing water otherwise lost to nature, pump 16 billion gallons of water a year out of the aquifer and ship it via a 43-mile pipeline that hasn’t been built yet to the Colorado River Aqueduct.
The aquifer would be maximized with state-of-the-art conservation; participating water districts would contract for a share; thirsty Southern Californians would have a new, innovative source of water; and Cadiz shareholders would make a lot money. The shareholders got a jump on their end of the deal when the stock price rose around 30% the first business day after last Friday’s court ruling.
Cadiz has been pursuing the project for more than a decade, fending off environmentalists, desert residents, nearby mining interests, political watchdogs, water district officials and one honked-off Los Angeles Times columnist.
Michael Hiltzik described the project in 2009 in rather unflattering terms, seven years after the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) had already rejected it. He dismissed the existence of “surplus” Colorado River water, questioned the amount of water said to already be in the aquifer, wondered about the environmental hurdles and detailed some of the political wheels that were greased to advance the project.
Cadiz CEO and Board Chairman Keith Brackpool was appointed to the state Horse Racing Commission in 2009 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was elected chairman in 2010 before leaving last year. Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, worked for Cadiz for awhile and in 2005 received $120,000 in consulting fees while serving on the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Brackpool and his associates contributed $43,650 to then-Los Angeles Mayor (and former Assembly Speaker) Antonio Villaraigosa and paid him a consultant fee while he was in between political assignments. He donated $345,000 to various campaigns by former Governor Gray Davis. San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt picked up $10,000 in campaign contributions in 2007-08 and Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno received $12,000.
Conservation groups have long opposed the Cadiz project over concerns that pumping water from the aquifer would dry up springs that support bighorn sheep and other wildlife. Air quality and groundwater beneath the Mojave Preserve also could be affected. They said the environmental impact report and groundwater management plan were deficient and challenged the role of the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County in approving them.
Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc., a mining company, filed suit against the project at one point, arguing that a drop in the water table would adversely affect the mining of salt in nearby dry lake beds.
All of the objections hit a dead end in Judge Andler’s court, at least temporarily, although she expressed some reservations. Andler said the water district, which wants to buy some of the water, might not be the right entity to serve as lead agency. But she wasn’t going to block the project over that.
Litigants in the case, including the Center for Biological Diversity, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, the San Gorgonio Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association, may appeal. Even if they don’t, Cadiz still faces significant challenges. The company has to build a pipeline across public land, which may involve federal review.