Cadiz Inc. Tries Again
by Chris Clarke, NPCA
When you think of possible new sources of water for a thirsty California, it’s unlikely the Mojave Desert would be the first source to come to mind. The Mojave is famously the driest place in the United States. Bagdad California, a former stop on Route 66 about 75 miles east of Barstow, went for more than two years – July 1912 to November 1914 – without any measurable rain whatsoever. Average rainfall throughout the Mojave Desert ran about five inches per year, pre-climate change. That’s about a third of the average in semiarid Los Angeles. Most of the
So it might be surprising to learn that a controversial corporation, Cadiz Inc., has been trying for the last few decades to extract an average of 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater each year from a spot not far from Bagdad, and then to sell that water to California water agencies. But it’s true. Cadiz would mine an aquifer full of non-renewable water that was deposited during the Ice Ages, threatening the Mojave’s crucial desert springs and seeps critical to wildlife … and held as extremely important by nearby Native tribes.
Oasis at Bonanza Spring
Photo: Chris Clarke
Unsurprisingly, the Cadiz project has attracted near-unanimous opposition from environmental organizations, environmental justice groups, water quality interests and tribes. Those groups have waged a so-far successful campaign to keep Cadiz from moving forward. But Cadiz isn’t giving up. In a move that has angered many environmental justice groups, Cadiz is trying to rebrand itself as essentially a social services organization that only wants to serve California’s frontline communities by supplying a new source of clean, reliable and affordable water. Even if those claims were true, Cadiz still faces nearly insurmountable hurdles before it can export a drop of water to the rest of California.
In the late 1990s, Cadiz teamed up with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to extract that fossil water and pump it into the MWD’s Colorado River Aqueduct for sale to MWD’s 26 member agencies. As the pipeline from Cadiz’s wells to the aqueduct would have crossed land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the project needed to undergo environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This allowed other federal agencies such as the US Geological Survey and National Park Service to weigh in on the likely impacts from Cadiz’s tapping of the ancient aquifer.
The USGS opined that the amount of water Cadiz wanted to mine from the aquifer, as much as two million acre-feet of Pleistocene groundwater over the course of 50 years, far outstripped the amount of water naturally returned to the aquifer through rain and snow. This meant that Cadiz’s plan would inevitably dry up springs and seeps connected to the aquifer and that the groundwater level would take centuries to recover. That persuaded MWD to back away from the project in 2002, a near lethal blow for Cadiz.
Photo: Mojave Desert Land Trust
Sadly, the lesson Cadiz learned was “avoid environmental review at all costs.” Introducing a rebranded version of its project in the late 2000s, Cadiz crafted a strategy that would allow the company to skirt environmental review by the federal government, while putting state environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act in the hands of a prospective customer that was desperate for new supplies to fuel upscale suburban growth. Cadiz promised a sweetheart deal on water for Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD ) if the agency approved the project.
Unsurprisingly, SMWD approved the state environmental analysis of the project, which relied on inflated estimates of aquifer recharge to bolster the company’s claim that it posed no danger to desert springs. The company didn’t fare so well on the federal side, as the Obama administration blocked Cadiz’s attempt to claim that it was exempt from NEPA analysis due to its proposed use of a railroad right of way to run its pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct. Obama also designated the 1.6 million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument surrounding Cadiz in February 2016, raising the stakes for protecting surface water sources.
Enter The Crony State
In the first few weeks of 2017, the incoming Trump administration signaled it would reverse that Obama era decision. Cadiz’s attorney David Bernhardt of the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck had been put in charge of the new administration’s Interior Department Transition Team.
Court challenges to the state environmental review failed, but Federal Court decisions in 2019 and 2022 struck down the administrative attempts to give Cadiz improper passes to evade NEPA analysis of its project’s environmental impacts. In 2019, the courts objected to the railroad right of way gambit, essentially forcing Cadiz to look to another option, the so-called “Northern Pipeline”: several hundred miles of retired oil and gas pipeline that runs past Cadiz’s land and into the Bakersfield area, where it could connect with major water conveyances such as the State Water Project. In 2022, the BLM approval of permits for the Northern Pipeline without analysis under NEPA or the National Historic Preservation Act was rejected.
Meanwhile, the California Legislature took note of Cadiz’s efforts to sidestep environmental laws. New peer-reviewed science published in 2018 proved that several springs were connected to the aquifer Cadiz would mine; the studies also supported the USGS’s earlier estimate of aquifer recharge that was far below Cadiz’s claims. In 2019, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 307, which barred Cadiz (or anyone else) from exporting groundwater from the eastern Mojave Desert unless the state determined that the export would not harm the desert’s natural or cultural resources. As Cadiz’s lobbyists said during debate over the bill, this is a standard that – if applied stringently – would be impossible for the company to pass. Governor Newsom, a longtime Cadiz critic, signed the bill into law in July 2019.
Cadiz was thus pushed toward the same federal environmental review that had nearly killed it in 2002. The company would likely fare worse under NEPA review in the 2020s than it had two decades earlier, as that earlier review did not account for climate change that would lessen overall precipitation in the Mojave, meaning much slower aquifer recharge.
Cadiz showed a rugged determination that would be almost admirable if the company’s intent wasn’t to drain the desert for profit. Fueled by infusions of capital from risk-tolerant hedge funds, Cadiz’s board opted to wait for a more favorable political climate to push its project through, spending the intervening time polishing its tarnished public image.
First Cadiz tried, starting in 2018, to advance a series of bogus studies of its environmental impacts conducted by a supportive hydrologist for a friendly water agency, the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Claremont. The hydrologist, Anthony Brown, is a long-time Cadiz supporter who had already “studied” the precise topic in the past, repeatedly coming up with results favorable to Cadiz. An outpouring opposition from environmental justice and conservation activists caused Three Valleys’ board to repudiate its arrangement with Cadiz in 2022.
In a parallel strategy, Cadiz persuaded a handful of social justice groups not usually involved in conservation or environmental justice issues to support the project, describing it self as a much-needed source of “reliable, clean, and affordable” water. Cadiz also offered free water to the Salton Sea Authority and to the Torres Martinez Cahuilla Tribe – about 5,000 acre-feet per year in total.
Those groups cannot be faulted for a knee jerk support of clean, reliable and affordable water for frontline communities. But MWD (with USGS’s help) had already decided Cadiz would not be a reliable source of water, as drying springs would likely force the company to stop pumping eventually. Furthermore, the groundwater Cadiz would mine contains carcinogenic Chromium 6 in amounts several hundred times the state’s public health goal, as well as arsenic and other contaminants. Even without removing those contaminants, an expensive process in itself, water from Cadiz’s wells would cost customers between two and five times more than water from the State Water Project. So the “reliable, clean and affordable” water Cadiz dangles in front of its social justice-oriented allies would be none of the three.
Whether this “wokewashing” strategy will pay off for Cadiz is uncertain. Signs are that the Environmental Justice community isn’t taking the bait.
Sierra Club Activists visit Bonanza Spring in 2019
Credit: Chris Clarke
Failure to learn from court losses
Despite being seemingly blocked, Cadiz isn’t playing a waiting game. In July of this year, the Needles Field Office of the BLM announced it was considering restarting the agency’s permit process for the Northern Pipeline without NEPA review, using a Categorical Exclusion (CatEx). This is an option when a project being examined is so minor and trivial that it clearly has no environmental impact. The BLM’s rationale was that this initial phase of the permit process merely granted Cadiz the ability to operate an oil and gas pipeline; conversion to a water pipeline would require a permit under another law entirely, which would be where NEPA would come into play.
But one of the requirements for using a Categorical Exclusion is that the CatEx cannot be used to cover one aspect of a broader project with likely impacts on the environment. To quote the Code of Federal Regulations:
To use a CATEX, the proponent must satisfy the following three screening conditions:
(A) The action has not been segmented. Determine that the action has not been segmented to meet the definition of a CATEX. Segmentation can occur when an action is broken down into small parts in order to avoid the appearance of significance of the total action. An action can be too narrowly defined, minimizing potential impacts in an effort to avoid a higher level of NEPA documentation. The scope of an action must include the consideration of connected, cumulative, and similar actions. (Emphasis mine.)
Cadiz has maintained for years that it wants the Northern Pipeline in order to ship water from its wells to potential paying customers. By considering a CatEx to cover one step in the process of creating Cadiz’s Northern Pipeline without considering the effects of the entire project on the environment, BLM is clearly segmenting the action in question – a violation of Federal law.
BLM offered a surprisingly short 15-day comment period for its proposed CatEx. That comment period has now ended. T Of roughly two dozen groups signing onto a protest letter objecting to the use of the CatEx about a third were well-respected environmental justice organizations such as the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and the California Environmental Justice Alliance. These groups clearly haven’t been hoodwinked by Cadiz’s marketing strategy. They know that frontline communities don’t need expensive, carcinogenic water that tastes like it’s been run through hundreds of miles of an abandoned oil and gas pipeline. One can only hope that many more Californians come to this realization.
Chris Clarke joined National Parks Conservation Association in 2017. As California Desert Associate Director, he works with desert communities to protect national parks, monuments, and other protected places, He lives in Twentynine Palms.