The late Sen. Dianne Feinstein relentlessly fought to preserve California’s natural splendor, especially its desert parks and water. All of the candidates running for her Senate seat have big hiking boots to fill.
Just off the main road to Joshua Tree, where San Bernardino and Riverside counties meet, lies a beautiful anomaly. The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is an unexpectedly lush and leafy sanctuary, bustling with birds and four-legged creatures – for two major reasons: Natural springs nourish this oasis with water, and it’s a protected national parkland.
The humble signage at this sanctuary contains no picture of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But it could. No one did more than Feinstein, who died last month at age 90, to make extraordinary places throughout the Mojave Desert off-limits to development. Three national parks and three national monuments stretching over 12 million acres of inland Southern California bear witness to her 30 years of work to preserve these rugged landscapes from plunder.
But as any park ranger or biologist would caution, park designation is not the ultimate safeguard. The underground water that replenishes the pools at Big Morongo feeds other springs in the Mojave.
For more than 30 years, a major Mojave aquifer had been targeted for pumping and piping out by a private company, Cadiz Inc. It sought to drain the groundwater and sell it off for profit. Standing in their way implacably was Feinstein, backed up by advocates for the tourist economy and desert environment, including tribes.
In 2017, the company came close to getting its way. President Donald Trump put the Cadiz scheme on his list of infrastructure projects. A previous lawyer for the company soon took over the federal Interior Department. In a display of the influence, the company had cultivated in Sacramento, then-state Sens. Ricardo Lara and Kevin de Leon killed state legislation backed by Gov. Jerry Brown to protect the desert and block the project.
Barriers to the scheme were all but removed.
Then desert advocates, along with Feinstein turned the tables. She faced de Leon in a Senate runoff in 2018, and campaign donations by Cadiz highlighted his water-carrying for the company as a state lawmaker. Previous donations de Leon accepted from plastic manufacturers to scuttle and cut loopholes in the state law banning throwaway plastic bags also came back to bite him. Fact-checking by environmentalists proved devastating, and many progressive voters soured on his sales pitch.
A Feinstein campaign event, in Riverside County, highlighted her 25 years of leadership for the desert ecosystem and economy. Voters rewarded her with another term – her last.
In July 2019, with de Leon out of government, state lawmakers guided by then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon approved (and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed) a bill to protect desert groundwater from destruction.
At the federal level, Trump infrastructure projects never materialized and Joe Biden won the White House. In December 2021, with the new president weighing in against claims by Cadiz, a federal judge vacated permits for the water-draining scheme granted by his predecessor in the eleventh hour.
In August, in one of the last letters she signed, Feinstein was joined by the person who succeeded Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Alex Padilla, in stating opposition to the Cadiz scheme and support for the desert ecosystem. Both senators urged the Bureau of Land Management to prevent the “significant and irreversible impacts that Cadiz’s project could have on the desert’s fragile ecology and surrounding communities.”
Such a united front showcases the late senator’s impact. It also highlights that the struggle to stop the project is not over.
Now the question looms: Who will succeed Feinstein and take up her legacy of safeguarding wildlife, water and 12 million acres of parks? It was she who made passage of the Desert Protection Act a top priority, alongside banning assault weapons, when she came to the Senate in 1993. President Bill Clinton signed the law in October 1994.
It was she who pushed President Barack Obama in February 2016 to designate three sprawling segments of wild terrain in the Mojave Desert as new national monuments. One of them, Sand to Snow National Monument, now incorporates the refuge at Big Morongo.
The replacement senator named by Newsom, Laphonza Butler, shows no record of accomplishment at all for the environment. Despite Butler’s announcement she will not run to succeed Feinstein permanently, her glaring weakness underscores an opportunity for all the candidates campaigning for the open seat to talk more about what will they do to protect parks, water and the natural splendor of the desert.
They have big hiking boots to fill, and more progress to make.