A controversial water project in the Mojave Desert — known for decades as the Cadiz water pipeline — is back in the spotlight with a promise that it will provide water to disadvantaged communities near the shrinking Salton Sea in addition to its long-held ambitions of selling desert water to urban Southern California.
Cadiz Inc. owns over 70 square miles of property in the Mojave Desert, east of Amboy and south of both Interstate 40 and Route 66, near Mojave Trails National Monument. For decades, the company has proposed pumping groundwater from beneath the desert property and selling it to urban Southern California areas. The project, which has morphed over the years, has been mired in opposition and lawsuits from environmental groups and other opponents.
But the latest iteration — Cadiz Water Project — notably rebrands the effort as one focused on conservation that would benefit communities in need of clean water or water infrastructure.
A recent agreement between Cadiz, the Salton Sea Authority, and Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians would provide free water — 5,000 acre-feet per year — to the tribe and troubled sea. One acre-foot of water, or 326,000 gallons, is enough to supply one to two California households for a year. The company also agreed to provide up to $5 million to install pipeline infrastructure and well treatment technology on tribal lands. The letter of intent is conditional on the project’s compliance with applicable laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Critics, however, say the free water offer is a public relations stunt aimed at garnering political favor for the project, which has been criticized for over two decades as damaging to the desert’s natural and cultural resources. They say using groundwater from the Mojave Desert to address the crisis at the Salton Sea is like “paying off one credit card with another credit card.”
Executive Board Chair Susan Kennedy said the company decided last year to dedicate a portion of water from the project to its neighbors with limited means to access to water.
“If you can even find water today, it’s not affordable. And we’re one of the only sources of water in the entire Colorado River Basin, so we wanted to make sure it went to communities that really have no other alternative sources,” she said. “And between the Salton Sea and the Torres Martinez tribe, they are in ground zero for needing access to water.”
Kennedy was appointed to the executive chair position in February 2022, taking the position formerly held by Cadiz founder Keith Brackpool for over two decades.
Kennedy first joined the Cadiz board in 2021, following more than 30 years in high-level positions in California government and politics, including serving as chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican; cabinet secretary to Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat; and communications director for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, also a Democrat. Feinstein has notably been a longtime opponent of the Cadiz project.
Kennedy said she first became interested in the project while working in the Davis Administration, and that groundwater storage and the Cadiz project in particular has “always stood out to me as a huge piece of California’s water puzzle.”
“This is a project that I’ve been in love with for 20 years, and I am really glad to be here at a time when we can bring it across the finish line,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy is just one of several political heavy-hitters that Cadiz has added to its board in the past few years. In July, former California Sen. and Assemblymember Richard Polanco, a “champion for the state’s disadvantaged communities,“ joined the board, according to Cadiz. Ken Lombard, former commissioner and president of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and former board member of the Metropolitan Water District, also joined Cadiz’s board this year.
In 2019, Maria Echaveste, who served as deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, joined the board, as did Carolyn Webb de Macias, who also has an extensive career in public policy and education in Los Angeles.
Webb de Macias chairs Cadiz’s new Equity, Sustainability and Environmental Justice Committee, which formed in March to “focus on elevating the company’s mission dedicated to delivering water supply, storage, and conveyance opportunities equitably, especially to underserved communities, and ensuring Cadiz’s projects, programs, and policies are sustainable and support communities that lack equitable access to water and the many quality-of-life benefits reliable water provides.”
Environmental groups that oppose the Cadiz project say Cadiz’s recent emphasis on environmental justice and disadvantaged communities amounts to a public relations stunt.
“Cadiz has decided that the best way to blunt opposition is to rebrand themselves as an environmental justice organization, which is laughable,” said Chris Clarke, associate director of the California desert program for the National Parks Conservation Association. “They’re trying to make themselves politically popular… this is a hail Mary pass.”
Kennedy said the argument that Cadiz was only offering the free water as a public relations move is “offensive to me personally.”
“I’ve been working on climate change and environmental initiatives for my entire career. And the fact is that the aquifer has between 25 and 30 million acre-feet of water, larger than Lake Mead, it’s in the ground, it’s 110% full, and it’s evaporating. It is unsustainable to have hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water lost every year to evaporation,” she said.
“And it would be criminal to watch that water evaporate when disadvantaged communities are drinking water that’s contaminated, because they don’t have access to fresh clean water,” she continued.
Project currently involved in litigation
The National Parks Conservation Association and the Native American Land Conservancy filed a lawsuit in 2021 challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s 2020 decision under the Trump Administration to issue a right-of-way for Cadiz’s use of an existing pipeline that was formerly used for oil and gas transport.
Cadiz acquired the 220-mile Northern Pipeline from El Paso Natural Gas in 2021. The pipeline extends from California’s Central Valley to Cadiz Ranch, and crosses state water infrastructure facilities like the State Water Project and the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Cadiz estimates the pipeline could transport approximately 25,000 acre-feet per year to communities along the route. In addition to the existing Northern Pipeline, Cadiz is proposing a 43-mile Southern Pipeline that would connect Cadiz Ranch to the Colorado River Aqueduct.
But the right-of-way for the Northern Pipeline is currently on hold. In December, the Bureau of Land Management itself joined the environmental groups’ lawsuit against the agency, requesting a voluntary remand that would send the decision over the right-of-way back to the Bureau of Land Management under the Biden Administration. In its request, the Bureau of Land Management agreed with the environmental groups’ argument that the Trump Administration’s Bureau of Land Management didn’t adequately analyze the potential environmental impacts or potential impacts to historic and sacred sites when it granted the right-of-way.
The request from the Bureau of Land Management, which Cadiz has opposed, is still awaiting a decision by the U.S. District Court.
Meanwhile, Kennedy says plans for the project continue to move forward and that regardless of the case’s outcome, Cadiz doesn’t anticipate that the litigation will influence the timeline of the project.
Kennedy says water from Cadiz could be available within 18 to 24 months from “the word go.”
For years, environmental groups and Cadiz have disagreed on the environmental impacts of the project. Cadiz says the project will conserve water that is currently lost to evaporation, at an amount of up to 50,000 acre-feet per year. Cadiz says the project will only convey and sell this conserved water.
Meanwhile, environmental groups and others opposed to the project say 50,000 acre-feet per year vastly exceeds the groundwater basin’s recharge rate, pointing to a figure from the U.S. Geological Survey, which says the recharge rate for the aquifer below Cadiz is between 2,000 and 10,000 acre-feet per year.
At Salton Sea Authority meetings in April and May, opponents argued that taking water from the Cadiz project to help the Salton Sea equated to solving one environmental disaster by creating another.
“We cannot pay a credit card with another credit card,” said Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea program director for Audubon California, at an April meeting, adding that the project would have to “significantly overdraft the aquifers in order to pencil out.”
“I applaud the efforts of the authority to alleviate the water crisis of the Salton Sea. However, I fundamentally disagree with their approach. We cannot afford to steal water from other sensitive ecosystems to address our local crisis,” Ruiz told The Desert Sun last week.
Ruiz called the 5,000 acre-feet for the Salton Sea and Torres Martinez “just a drop in the bucket” of the total amount of water needed for the Salton Sea Region, but said the project would create a “much bigger impact for the Cadiz region.” Instead, he said the region needs to rethink its approach to water, setting water budgets for different sectors to better use current resources in the area.
‘We have no clean drinking water’
Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the Pacific Institute who has spent decades focused on the Colorado River basin and the Salton Sea, told The Desert Sun Monday that there are two big questions surrounding the Cadiz project’s feasibility.
“There’s the question of how much water they can actually sustainably produce, which I think is much less than they claim, and then there’s the political environment,” Cohen said, noting Feinstein’s opposition and possible opposition from the state. The California Natural Resources Agency did not support the Salton Sea Authority’s agreement with Cadiz, citing questions and concerns around the project.
“It seems like they’ve got a pretty big hill to climb before they can actually deliver water outside of the immediate region. But they are persistent,” Cohen said, noting that Cadiz was founded in the 1980s and is still moving forward and facilitating funding.
Cohen also sounded a warning.
At the Salton Sea Authority meeting, Cohen repeated an old adage: “If it’s free, then you’re the product.”
Other groups opposed to Cadiz’s agreement with the Salton Sea Authority included the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Native American Land Conservancy, and the Council of Mexican Federations.
The Salton Sea Authority’s Board ultimately voted 9-1 on May 26 to approve signing a Letter of Intent with Cadiz to receive the water, with Board member Ryan Kelley the only dissenter, calling it “hypocritical to accept a resource at the expense of another region.”
Thomas Tortez Jr., tribal council chairman of Torres Martinez and a Salton Sea Authority board member, said the tribe has been waiting for over a century for a resolution to issues at the Salton Sea with “no solution in sight,” and emphasized that the Letter of Intent would only take effect if Cadiz moved forward with the project, which would require it to be in compliance with various federal and state environmental requirements.
“Everyone that is here today is going to go home and drink clean drinking water. Well, not Torres Martinez. We have no clean drinking water,” Tortez said at the Salton Sea Authority meeting.
“We would not have entertained this if it was going to devastate the environment. How could people think that Torres Martinez would devastate the environment? We are one with the environment. Our people alone have lived for centuries with the environment. I am appalled to think that anyone would think Torres Martinez would destroy a community to provide our own drinking water,” he continued.
And while project opponents said signing the Letter of Intent would serve as the Salton Sea Authority’s endorsement of the Cadiz project, Salton Sea Authority Executive Director G. Patrick O’Dowd said it was much simpler: free water. Like Tortez, O’Dowd said that if the Cadiz project does come to fruition, that would mean it has addressed any environmental concerns from the permitting agencies.
“If it does (move forward), somebody’s going to want that resource. And it was being offered to us for broad public benefit, and we felt it was appropriate that (if the project moved forward) and that water does become available to somebody, if we didn’t take advantage of it for the people of the Imperial and Riverside counties, that would not be prudent,” O’Dowd said.
“Not everything that we pursue is going to pan out. This may never produce a single drop of water. But we’ve got to, you know, explore all prudent and reasonable and responsible alternatives to meet the future needs of our community,” he continued.
Additional state review required
Another recent hurdle for the Cadiz project is SB 307, a state law signed in 2019 that specifically requires Cadiz to submit an application to the State Lands Commission before transferring water from the groundwater basin to outside of the groundwater basin.
In order for the water to be transferred, the State Lands Commission Commission, in consultation with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Water Resources, must find “that the transfer of the water will not adversely affect the natural or cultural resources” of federal and state lands in the vicinity.
The State Lands Commission has not yet received an application from Cadiz, according to spokesperson Sheri Pemberton. Once it does, it is required to make a written finding within 15 months, although it has the option to extend that timeline.
Kennedy isn’t concerned about the State Lands Commission review, noting that Cadiz has already undergone four rounds of CEQA and NEPA reviews dating back to 1992, as well as lawsuits related to those reviews. She doesn’t expect the review will “interrupt or delay the project at all.”
“The environmental studies have already been done, and there’s nothing else that can be studied,” she said. “It’s gone through the court, it’s gone through four rounds of exhaustive review… It’s been the most studied project in the history of groundwater in California. What the legislation requires the State Lands Commission to do is basically certify the environmental work that’s been done, and it’s already been done, so we don’t expect that to be much.”
Clarke, meanwhile, called SB 307 “the strongest standard of environmental protection I have ever heard of,” noting that his interpretation is that the commission must determine that Cadiz poses “zero threat to the natural or cultural resources of the desert.”
“Cadiz at this point is essentially doomed, but they are not going quietly,” he said.
Pemberton, the spokesperson for the State Lands Commission, declined to comment on what the process for the review might be or on what role the prior reviews will have in the State Land Commission’s own process, stating that “it would be premature to comment on what our process would be until we have an application to process.”
Cadiz currently has a total of 12 agreements with Southern California water agencies for water supply and storage, which give agencies the option to purchase certain amounts of water from Cadiz. Kennedy describes the project as currently “oversubscribed,” with more water reserved than available.
Kennedy describes some of the project’s detractors as “anti-growth,” and says Cadiz’s agreements for water will primarily serve the state’s disadvantaged communities.
“The water is going to areas of growth that need affordable housing and don’t have access to water or water infrastructure, areas that were built out with the second 20 million people in California, areas that are mostly Latino, Asian, and Black communities that weren’t part of the original infrastructure of California. Those are the areas that the contracts for our water are going to, those areas that don’t have senior water rights,” Kennedy said.
“By definition, most of this water is going to go to either disadvantaged communities or communities that need affordable housing, and don’t have access to senior water rights,” she continued.
For the Salton Sea Authority, the recent agreement is a gift that’s hard to come by in the drought-stricken West: the possibility of free water, seemingly with no strings attached.
“The developer believes they’ve got (the concerns) pretty well addressed. But there’s no certainty to that. In a perfect world, it would be good if it became available in the next couple of years. But it may never happen,” O’Dowd said.
Erin Rode covers the environment for the Desert Sun. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @RodeErin.
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