California’s public lands and resources are under siege by a powerful corporation and its allies in Washington.
Congressional Republicans used a recent must-pass government spending bill to pave the way for the Cadiz water extraction project, a particularly destructive project in California’s Mojave Desert.
Cadiz seeks to create a loophole in an 1875 railroad law to drain an ancient desert aquifer without any federal oversight. The aquifer supports the abundant wildlife of California’s desert – from tortoises and bighorn sheep to breathtaking wildflower blooms that blanket the region.
The aquifer doesn’t just sustain a sensitive Californian ecosystem, it also supports a community of tribes, municipalities, ranchers, salt miners, recreationists, tourists and local industries. This project would destroy all of that by draining the region of its most precious resource – water.
We need to shine a light on what’s going on behind the scenes here in Washington. For years, Cadiz has pursued a targeted strategy of campaign donations to buy off former opponents and grease the path forward.
Cadiz is represented in Washington by the powerful lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Cadiz CEO Scott Slater previously chaired the firm’s natural resources efforts. His co-chair, David Bernhardt, led President Donald Trump’s Interior Department transition team and was recently nominated to be the deputy secretary of the interior, the very department that oversees the federal permitting process for Cadiz.
According to public SEC financial filings, the Brownstein firm is a shareholder in Cadiz and Cadiz’s CEO is a shareholder in the Brownstein firm. Both stand to profit handsomely if Trump and House Republicans allow the project to move forward.
Those conflicts are troubling. This project places a big emphasis on corporate profit at the expense of the broader public, which in this case harms our irreplaceable public lands.
When the project was first proposed, I worked with Cadiz to bring in a neutral scientific agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, to see if there was any way for the project to proceed without depleting the aquifer and destroying the desert.
The Geological Survey’s study found that the natural refill rate of the desert aquifer is between 2,000 and 10,000 acre feet of water per year. A position they reaffirmed multiple times, including in a letter this month.
Cadiz, however, chose to ignore that study and instead developed a plan to extract 50,000 acre feet of water from the aquifer every year, far exceeding the natural refill rate. Excessively draining the slow-refilling aquifer would devastate local businesses and the abundant wildlife that draws visitors to this iconic destination.
Cadiz tries to justify their project by pointing to a controversial state environmental impact report prepared by the Santa Margarita Water District. However, the water district would be the main beneficiary of the project and is therefore clearly not objective in evaluating the project’s environmental consequences. This obvious conflict of interest should alarm all Californians.
The National Park Service, which operates the adjacent Mojave Trails National Monument, has criticized numerous aspects of the Santa Margarita environmental analysis. The park service concluded that Cadiz’s aquifer refill rate estimates “are not reasonable and should not even be considered,” and that the analysis was “technically deficient.”
The park service also took exception to Cadiz’s assertion that the aquifer isn’t connected to any adjacent natural springs that sustain desert life – a view that is not backed up by any site-specific studies and has been rejected by independent scientists.
Cadiz claims that the extraction project’s opponents, including me, are only interested in thwarting efforts to increase California’s water supply and infrastructure investments.
I could not disagree more. In December, I fought many members of my own party to enact legislation to authorize $335 million for additional water storage projects.
Cadiz is the biggest threat facing our magnificent desert. We cannot let this company use the Trump administration and powerful Washington insiders to rob us of our public lands.
I will keep fighting because I’m determined to protect this unique place. I ask anyone outraged by this Republican overreach to join the fight.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is California’s senior U.S. senator. She can be contacted at www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/e-mail-me.