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California governor signs law impacting desert water project

August 1, 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s governor signed a law on Wednesday that could delay a project to pump billions of gallons of water out from under the Mojave Desert.

Cadiz Inc., an agriculture company in Southern California, wants to take the water and sell it to 400,000 customers in the Los Angeles region. The project has passed all of the required environmental reviews dating back to at least 2002.

But Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that adds another step by requiring the State Lands Commission to review the project before it can go forward.

“This fragile ecosystem has existed, in balance, for centuries. Prior to allowing any project to move forward there must be certainty that it will not threaten the important natural and cultural resources,” Newsom wrote in his signing statement.

In December, state regulators said new information showed the project would dry up a nearby spring that provides water for bighorn sheep, which are protected under state and federal endangered species laws.

Company officials have disputed that, noting reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act found that claim impossible. The company says the project has been upheld at least 12 times by the courts.

Cadiz Inc. CEO Scott Slater said while the company opposed the bill, they will comply with the law and submit the project to the State Lands Commission for approval, adding: “We don’t expect any different outcome.”

“It’s a shame for California that we have to go through this,” Slater said, noting the new source of water could spur development of new development in the country’s most populous state facing a critical housing shortage. “The question is can (the state) put in place the procedural hurdles that will tire us out. But they don’t know us very well. We’ve been at it for a while, and we haven’t gotten tired out.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has opposed the project for years, accused the company of trying “to skirt federal permitting and rob the Mojave Desert of its most precious resource, water.”

“If Cadiz were allowed to drain a vital desert aquifer, everything that makes our desert special - from bighorn sheep and desert tortoises to Joshua trees and breathtaking wildflower blooms - would have been endangered,” she said in a news release.

The company says more than 20 million acre feet of water sits in an aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert. The water eventually flows to low-lying areas called “dry lakes” and either evaporates or becomes too salty to drink.

One acre foot of water (43,560 cubic feet) is more than 325,000 gallons, the amount of irrigation water that would cover an acre to the depth of a foot.

State Sen. Richard Roth, a Democrat from Riverside who authored the bill, said he’s concerned the company would remove billions of gallons of water more than nature puts back in every year.

The company, citing a model developed by the U.S. Geological Survey, says the project would remove about 50,000 acre feet of that water each year while nature would replenish about 32,000 acre-feet per year.

But Roth said other studies from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service suggest the aquifer naturally replenishes between 2,000 acre-feet and 10,000 acre-feet per year.

“We cannot afford to get this wrong. It is critical to allow independent scientists to review the scientific evidence in order to resolve the conflict,” he said.

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