• Steve Brown

Federal Court Dumps Trump Administration Approval of Cadiz Pipeline

A federal court dealt the embattled Cadiz Water Project a serious blow when it ruled the Trump administration violated the law when it approved plans for Cadiz to construct a 43-mile pipeline through the Mojave Trails National Monument and other public lands.

The pipeline would allow 16 billion gallons of desert groundwater to be drained from a fragile Mojave aquifer to be sold to Orange County. The water sale would endanger the aquifer, the springs it feeds, and the wildlife dependent upon those springs for their survival.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge George H. Wu said railroad easements can only be used for activities that further a railroad purpose, and the Trump administration had failed to justify how the Cadiz pipeline would serve that purpose. The BLM had overturned decisions made during the Obama administration to allow Cadiz to use an existing railroad right-of-way for the pipeline.

“The court saw right through the Trump administration’s attempt to shoehorn the massive Cadiz pipeline into a railroad easement through Mojave Trails National Monument,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice who represented the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety. “The Cadiz pipeline is designed to facilitate an ill-conceived corporate plan to profit from a public necessity. It has nothing to do with the railroad.”

“Today’s ruling reverses the illegal favoritism demonstrated by the Trump administration to Cadiz, Inc.,” said David Lamfrom, California desert and wildlife director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Independent environmental review is still needed of the Cadiz proposal and its impacts to groundwater, wildlife and nearby national parks and public lands. The court’s confirmation that the Trump administration illegally advantaged the project underscores the need for independent review by the State of California to ensure Mojave Trails National Monument and Mojave National Preserve are protected from doom.”

University of California, Irvine Law Professor Michael Robinson-Dorn, who represented NPCA in their challenge, said “the decision again emphasizes the important role of our courts in holding the executive branch accountable for decisions that fail to follow the law.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and the National Parks Conservation Association filed suit in November 2017 and 2018 to challenge a decision by the Bureau of Land Management, which had reversed two Obama-era decisions. Those reversals gave the developer permission to build the pipeline within an existing railroad right-of-way.

“We’re grateful the court decision will stop the Trump administration’s blatant attempt to do a favor for their corporate friends. The court found that the reversal of Obama-era policies was unjustified and unexplained,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This massive water-privatization scheme is not sustainable. Cadiz will devastate the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem that relies on that water for survival."

If allowed to move forward, the Cadiz water-mining project would drain life-giving springs in the Mojave Trails National Monument and surrounding public lands, killing vegetation and destroying key habitat for a host of desert wildlife, including the threatened desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, Mojave fringe-toed lizards and kit foxes.

Hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey determined that the Cadiz project is unsustainable and that the company’s privately funded study vastly overstates the aquifer’s recharge rate.

“Trump and his cronies behind this scam will eventually learn that their world, of exploitation and profit above all, is over,” said Adam Keats, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety. “This is yet another reminder to them that they are not above the law.”

Recent peer-reviewed, published science clearly demonstrated that the Cadiz proposal’s underlying science is flawed and the project would be devastating to both natural and cultural resources in California’s largest national monument, Mojave Trails.

The project’s approval followed the appointment of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for Cadiz, as deputy Interior secretary. Bernhardt’s former employer, the Washington-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, continues to represent Cadiz.

Cadiz CEO Scott Slater told the San Diego Union-Tribune the ruling on the use of the right-of-way is a procedural matter that can easily be fixed.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a longtime vocal critic of the Cadiz project, released a statement about the federal judge's ruling.

“I’m pleased the federal judge saw this move for what it was: an end run around the law. While this is a victory for the Mojave Desert, California must still enact stronger protections to ensure the desert isn’t plundered of its vital water by this company.

“The judge ruled that the administration lacked a justifiable rationale when it reversed the 2015 determination that Cadiz must undergo the normal federal environmental review process.

“Unfortunately, the judge’s ruling leaves open the possibility that the Trump administration could still find a way to let Cadiz use the railroad right of way without any federal environmental review.

“Cadiz’s CEO has already stated he’ll ask the Trump administration to rewrite its reversal of the 2015 determination in a more favorable way.

“That’s why the California Assembly must pass SB 307 as soon as possible to protect the desert, regardless of what move Cadiz plans next. The administration has shown its willingness to stack the deck in Cadiz’s favor so we must be ready.”

Senate Bill SB 307 has passed the California Senate and has passed through the Assembly's Committee on Natural Resources, and has gone to the Appropriations Committee. A full vote is expected later this summer.

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