White House

Feinstein fumes as Trump team waives environmental review for Mojave water project

Scott Slater, CEO of the Cadiz water project, stands near a basin at the project site near Needles, California, Slater and Cadiz have recently gotten a big boost by a Trump administration decision that relieves the project of a federal environmental review requirement.
Scott Slater, CEO of the Cadiz water project, stands near a basin at the project site near Needles, California, Slater and Cadiz have recently gotten a big boost by a Trump administration decision that relieves the project of a federal environmental review requirement. AP

The Trump administration has handed a big boost to a private water venture in Southern California, angering California’s senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who said the decision could “destroy pristine public land” in the Mojave Desert.

In a little-noticed memorandum issued last month, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management effectively relieved the Cadiz water project of the requirement to undergo a federal environmental review, which the company had sought to avoid. The decision greatly boosts the prospects for Cadiz, which wants to tap water from under the Mojave and sell it to thirsty water districts in Southern California.

“The detrimental impact this project would have on the California desert is irreversible,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Rather than allow a proper environmental review, the Trump administration wants to open the door for a private company to exploit a natural desert aquifer and destroy pristine public land purely for profit.”

Cadiz responded that its project has undergone multiple environmental reviews, including a California Environmental Quality Act review that survived court challenges.

Feinstein’s “opposition has done a disservice to thousands of Californians who will benefit from this public-private partnership – a project which will deliver new, reliable water without any adverse environmental impacts,” Cadiz CEO Scott Slater said in a statement.

As noted in a Feb. 8 story by McClatchy, Cadiz has seen its fortunes rise since Trump was elected. Its stock price has more than doubled since Trump’s victory, apparently because investors believe the venture will fare better now than it did when Barack Obama was in office. Slater, the company’s CEO, is a water lawyer affiliated with the Denver-based firm Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck, an influential lobbying force in Washington.

One remaining hurdle for Cadiz is building a 43-mile pipeline necessary for shipping its water to potential customers. Prior to 2015, Cadiz assumed it could use an existing railroad right-of-way for the pipeline and do so without a costly and time-consuming federal review. Yet two years ago, the California office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reversed a 2009 determination and required Cadiz to seek a permit to build the pipeline.

Over the last two years, Cadiz has been lobbying Congress to overturn the BLM decision and pass legislation that would relieve it and other companies of permitting requirements on railroad right of ways. On March 1, two California lawmakers – Democrat Tony Cardenas and Republican Tom McClintock – joined 16 other congressional representatives in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him to rescind the BLM decision and relieve the project of a federal review.

In a March 29 memorandum, Zinke’s Interior Department did just that, rescinding the 2015 decision signed by Timothy Spisak, acting assistant director for BLM’s Division of Energy, Minerals, and Realty Management.

Feinstein is the author of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which established the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve. She has long opposed Cadiz, which has struggled for 15 years to get traction on different versions of its water project.

Feinstein points to analyses by the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey to argue that Cadiz would withdraw more water – 50,000 acre feet each year – than nature could provide to recharge the desert aquifer.

“The Trump administration has once again put corporate profits ahead of the public’s interest,” Feinstein said in her statement. “In a blatant attempt to muscle the Cadiz water project through, the administration is completely undermining federal oversight of railroad rights-of-way.”

Cadiz rejects those claims, asserting that more recent analyzes have found that the company’s proposed groundwater withdrawals pose no threat to the desert’s flora and faunta.

“Senator Feinstein regrettably relies on outdated, 17-year old data inconsistent with presently known facts as foundation to oppose a project which will safely and sustainably create new water for 400,000 people, has broad bipartisan community support, will generate 5,900 new jobs, and will drive nearly $1 billion in economic growth,” Slater said late Tuesday.

Feinstein, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has used her position before to block Cadiz and other developments she has deemed detrimental to the Mojave Desert. Whether she can again is not clear, but she pledged Tuesday to “fight this latest effort to push the Cadiz water project through.”

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth

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