Pro-Con: Would desert water project help or hurt?

By Mary Martin, Special to CALmatters

California policymakers are the last line of defense against the federal government’s attempt to facilitate a water heist from beneath our Mojave Desert.

Cadiz Inc. seeks to extract 50,000 acre-feet of water from an underground basin in the Mojave each year and pump it to urban users near the coast.

In 2015, President Barack Obama’s administration blocked the Cadiz Valley project. But under President Donald Trump, the federal Bureau of Land Management told Cadiz Inc. the company won’t need a permit to build the pipeline.

In addition to waiving the basic requirements for federal environmental review, the consider-no-evil Trump administration placed the Cadiz project on its list of “emergency and national security” infrastructure projects.

That step mocks Obama’s establishment of the Mojave Trails National Monument, which is sustained by groundwater that Cadiz would mine.

As Michael Madrigal, President of the Native American Land Conservancy has said: “Indigenous peoples have lived in and tended the California Desert for thousands of years.

“Water is crucial to the native peoples of the California desert. That’s in part why we worked to help establish Mojave Trails National Monument: to protect important springs and other cultural sites from unsustainable industrial projects.”

At this point, it is likely only the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown can prevent the pillage-degrade-and-abandon scheme that would irrevocably mine the lifeblood of desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other denizens of the Mojave’s fragile desert ecosystem.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein – an oasis of sanity on this issue in Washington – calls the Cadiz project a “desert boondoggle,” and its boondoggle qualities can be easily explained.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the natural recharge rate of the basin from rainfall is from 2,000 to 10,000 acre-feet a year – a range that is from 5 to 25 times less than the 50,000 acre-feet of annual extraction envisioned by the project.

On top of that, a peer-reviewed scientific study published this spring in the Journal of Environmental Forensics concluded that Bonanza Springs, a vital water resource for desert wildlife and Native peoples, is connected to and fed by the same basin which the project would drain. Cadiz Inc. had claimed for decades that desert springs were not connected to the basin.

And so it remains for the state of California to be the regulator of last resort.

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat, is carrying legislation to allow the state to assert that role and conduct its own review, providing the checks-and-balances increasingly required when California values conflict with the Trump administration actions. It was bottled up in the Senate last summer despite urging from Brown, Feinstein, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to move it along. It has lain dormant ever since.

Since that action, the Senate’s leadership has changed.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins voted for the legislation last year. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon has called Cadiz “tainted by egregious conflicts of interest within the Trump Administration.”

Lawmakers have two weeks to ensure that this project gets the critical review it so obviously deserves.

State policymakers must do what circumstances demand when the federal government abandons its responsibility and acts counter to the interests of California, its natural and cultural resources and its people. They must again resist.


Mary Martin is retired Superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve and Lassen Volcanic National Park, [email protected]She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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