Trump’s BLM removes a hurdle for controversial Cadiz project

The Mojave Desert project moves forward without typical environmental review.

 

The Trump administration on Friday removed a major obstacle that had long stalled a project designed to pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert to communities in Southern California. The planned 43-mile pipeline would follow an already existing railroad through public land; the Bureau of Land Management sent a letter last week to Cadiz Inc., the company behind the pipeline, stating that the company did not need federal permission to begin construction.

The announcement reflects the Trump administration’s determination to prioritize large infrastructure projects over environmental protections. The Cadiz project has drawn a lot of attention in Washington, D.C., both because of what’s at stake for the desert ecosystem and because it reflects a major shift in priorities from the Obama administration.

The issue was prominent in the confirmation hearings for Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former industry lawyer whose clients’ businesses relied on decisions made by Interior. Bernhardt did legal work for Cadiz Inc., and a former law partner of Bernhardt’s is the president and CEO of the company. Bernhardt’s former law firm was paid in stock and stands to profit from the project’s success. Bernhardt told senators in his confirmation hearing that he would avoid conflicts of interest. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jeff Krauss wrote in an email: “Deputy Secretary Bernhardt has played absolutely no role in anything related to the Cadiz project.”

Desert bighorn sheep are among hundreds of animals and plants that rely on rare surface water in the Mojave Desert.
By David Lamfrom, NPCA

The water would be pumped from wells on Cadiz’s private land, which is near the Mojave National Preserve and surrounded by the Mojave Trails National Monument. But many scientists and environmental groups oppose the project because of concerns that pumping enormous amounts of water out of the aquifer could deplete natural springs. The springs sustain habitat for rare wildlife in the desert such as tortoises and bighorn sheep.

By constructing its project in the right of way of the California & Arizona Railroad, Cadiz avoids federal environmental reviews. The National Environmental Policy Act usually requires agencies to study major projects on federal land to determine potential impacts to endangered species, waterways and other important ecological features. “Knowing a federal environmental review would expose the dangers of its project, Cadiz has waited years for an administration willing to greenlight its plans without any real oversight. That gamble has clearly paid off,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in a statement Monday. “Cadiz is now set to drain more than three times the aquifer’s natural recharge rate, putting life in the Mojave desert at risk.”

According to the Obama administration, the Cadiz pipeline was not essential to the operations of the railroad and hence was not exempted from federal environmental reviews. As a result, the BLM in 2015 advised Cadiz the project would require federal permitting. After a bipartisan request from 18 members of Congress, the Trump administration started rescinding the Obama administration policies that had snarled the project. On Sept. 1, the Interior Department’s acting solicitor issued a legal opinion that sets a much lower bar for exempting projects from federal environmental reviews. The opinion allows railroads covered under the 1875 General Rights of Way Act to lease their easements for projects as long as they do not interfere with the railroads.

Opponents of the pipeline stress that the project still faces significant hurdles and vowed to continue to fight against it. For instance, the California State Lands Commission said in a letter last month that its analysis determined that the proposed Cadiz project would cross state land and would need a lease. Further environmental review may be required by the state, according to environmental groups. The proposed pipeline would also link up with the Colorado River Aqueduct, which may not have capacity for additional water for much of the year. A letter from the Metropolitan Water District to Feinstein last month also reports that the groundwater contains arsenic, hexavalent chromium and other harmful chemicals in concentrations unacceptable in drinking water. The company likely would have to treat the water piped out of the Mojave, adding considerable expense to the project.

“We’ve been working on this for decades and the resolution of this may take another decade or more,” said David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert programs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Still, Cadiz was thrilled by the BLM’s decision. Scott Slater, Cadiz’s president and CEO and Bernhardt’s former law partner, said in a statement released Monday that his company is “tremendously satisfied to finally have this matter resolved.”

 

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.