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California lawmakers seek to slow desert water project

July 11, 2019
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Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, urges lawmakers to reject a measure to slow a project that would pump billions of gallons of water from under the Mojave Desert and sell it to people in Southern California, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, July 11, 2019. The Assembly approved the bill, SB307 by state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, that will require the State Lands Commission to review the project, by Cadiz Inc., before it can go forward. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A project to pump billions of gallons of water out from under the Mojave Desert and sell it to people in Southern California could be slowed by a bill approved for the first time on Thursday by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Vast amounts of groundwater sit in an aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert, where it eventually flows to low-lying areas called “dry lakes” and either evaporates or becomes too salty to drink.

Cadiz Inc., an agriculture company that owns lots of land in the area, wants to pump out 50,000 acre feet of that water each year before it is lost and send it to Southern California. One acre foot of water (43,560 cubic feet) is more than 325,000 gallons, the amount of irrigation water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot.

The project has passed all of the required environmental reviews dating back to at least 2002. But Thursday, state lawmakers added another step by passing a bill that would require the State Lands Commission to review the project before it can go forward.

It’s an effort that opponents of the project have tried several times before, but it’s never reached the governor’s desk. Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein have opposed the project for environmental reasons.

Supporters say this new review is important because they question the earlier reviews’ objectivity about the project and its impact to the fragile desert ecosystem. In December, the state regulators said new information showed the project would dry up a nearby spring that provides water for bighorn sheep, which are protected under the state and federal endangered species laws.

The company disputes that, saying reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act found that claim “geologically, hydrologically and legally impossible.” The company says the project has been upheld at least 12 times by the courts, leaving opponents with nothing but politics to fight it.

Cadiz spokeswoman Courtney Degener said the company will urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto the bill. But if it becomes law, she said the company will “embrace fair, open and transparent review of science.”

“If California is serious about meeting its commitment to provide, clean, reliable and affordable water to all people, of all color in all locations, Cadiz is ready to play its part,” she said.

California has struggled for decades to provide enough water for its nearly 40 million residents, especially those who live in the populous southern part of the state that does not get much rain. The state has a vast and complex network of canals and pumps to bring in water from as far away as the Colorado River.

Droughts in recent years have depleted much of the state’s groundwater supply to the point that the ground has sunk in some places, damaging canals. Environmental groups, including the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Parks Conservation Association, praised lawmakers for passing the bill.

“The Legislature has made it clear that the era of driving California’s aquifers into overdraft conditions is over and emphasizes the importance of managing these aquifers sustainably for the future,” said Kim Delfino, California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife.

But some lawmakers questioned the move to delay the project at a time when the state is struggling to provide clean drinking water to more than 1 million residents.

“We can’t have a statewide water fix if we can’t get projects like this done,” said Republican Assemblyman Heath Flora from Ripon.

Democratic state Sen. Richard Roth, who authored the bill, said he is not opposed to pumping water out of the desert.

“Everyone knows that we need more water in California, but what they need is water that is obtained in an environmentally sustainable way. And that’s all this bill seeks to do,” he said.

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