California committee OKs bill on desert water-pumping plan
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A last-minute effort to require more state oversight of a company’s plan to pump water from underneath the Mojave Desert passed a key committee Tuesday, advancing in the final days of the legislative session.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor, all urged lawmakers to pass it.
At issue is a proposal by the Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. to pump water from its wells below the Mojave Desert, transfer it through a 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct and distribute it to customers in Southern California. The company says the project will create thousands of jobs, create hundreds of millions in economic activity and generate enough water to supply up to 400,000 people annually.
Critics of the project argue it will dry up the desert and destroy cultural and natural resources. They say the project would draw more water from aquifers than could be naturally replenished.
″(The bill) is key to safeguarding California’s fragile desert and its most vital resource — water,” Feinstein wrote in a Monday letter to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, urging it to pass the bill.
The legislation would add two additional layers of state approval from the State Lands Commission and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The bill’s language applies specifically to the desert lands.
Sen. Richard Roth, a Riverside Democrat who authored the bill, said he doesn’t oppose pumping water out of the aquifer but wants to ensure it’s done sustainably.
Fellow Democrats killed a nearly identical proposal last year, arguing the state shouldn’t rewrite laws for one project and that Cadiz had already cleared tough federal and state environmental hurdles.
The Trump administration has placed the project on its list of priorities, reversing Obama-era rules that halted Cadiz from using an existing railroad right of way for its 43-mile pipeline.
Current law bars state and local agencies from denying transfers of water if fair compensation is paid and requirements are met, such as showing the project won’t unreasonably affect fish and wildlife.
The project has already gone through environmental reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act and has withstood several lawsuits. Environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in November for allowing the pipeline to be built.
Cadiz, in a news release, called the bill a “clear political hit” and that would set a “dire precedent for all infrastructure projects in California.”
“While the bill targets one specific project, it sets a dangerous precedent and poses a potential threat to any infrastructure project in the state,” read a Monday letter signed by dozens of groups including trade councils, chambers of commerce, local government agencies and several water districts.
The bill cleared the Assembly Natural Resources committee Tuesday. The full Assembly will likely take up the bill later this week. It requires approval from both chambers of the Legislature and the governor to become law.
Associated Press writer Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.