Column: Has Biden moved to finally kill California's most farcical water project?

Column: Has Biden moved to finally kill California's worst water project?


12/7/2021 9:33:00 AM

Column: Has Biden moved to finally kill California's worst water project?

The Cadiz water scheme has been a dead-project-walking for two decades. Biden may finally put it in the grave.

PrintDesperation over water scarcity has produced any number of schemes to relieve the crisis. But few are as chuckle-headed as a plan to pump groundwater from beneath the Mojave Desert and transport it 200 miles to urban Southern California.This is the Cadiz water project, which has been percolating along since the turn of the century.

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I’ve been following this scheme almost since its inception, starting withan investigative articlein 2002 that made the case for the Metropolitan Water District to bail on a proposed partnership with its promoter, Cadiz Inc. The MWD did so, which should have killed the plan.

This is not a case where BLM conducted an appropriate level of analysis, in which the court might find some technical legal errors. Instead, BLM failed to prepare the required analyses altogether.”Bureau of Land Management calls foul on itselfAdvertisement

But it has continued to stalk water policy ever since. Now, finally, the Biden administration may have driven a stake through its heart for good.On Friday, officials at Biden’s Interior Departmentpetitioned a federal judgeto throw out project approvals issued in 2020 by the same agency under President Trump; a hearing on the petition is set for March. More on that in a moment.

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Even if Cadiz is killed, the problem of ill-conceived solutions to water scarcity won’t go away. The best illustration of how desperation affects water policy is the More Water Now ballot initiative, whichI described a few days agoas a dangerously ill-conceived measure. The proposal’s backers are now collecting signatures to place it on the November 2022 ballot.

The Cadiz plan is, if possible, even worse. The proposal has remained alive up to now not because it has any practical value. It doesn’t.AsI wrote in 2009, the plan always “had a sort of shimmering authenticity, like a desert mirage.” But it didn’t bear close inspection.

As proposed by Cadiz Inc., the idea was to store surplus Colorado River water under a desert tract owned by the company, pump it out during dry spells and transport it by pipeline or canal to Southern California urban users.Among the problems is that there isn’t any surplus water in the Colorado. The basin is in a long-term drought, and for the foreseeable future California will be lucky to get its full statutory apportionment of river water. A single extra drop? Forget it.

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Furthermore, there’s considerable disagreement over how much groundwater really underlies the Cadiz land, not to mention how much the company is legally permitted to pump out and how much could be pumped before neighboring aquifers become contaminated with carcinogenic minerals.

When President Trump nominated David Bernhardt for a top-level post at the Interior Department, environmentalists and water experts could see trouble ahead.Thethat the company’s estimates of the available water for pumping were roughly seven times as high as what was reasonable.

Then there’s the difficulty of transporting the water, which would require pipelines crossing delicate desert ecosystems.No, what has kept the scheme alive has been political pull. This was exerted chiefly by Cadiz’s conceiver, an investment promoter named Keith Brackpool, who — as I reported in 2002 — came to the U.S. after pleading guilty to criminal charges relating to securities trading in Britain.

While he was pushing the deal at the MWD, Brackpool served as a contributor and fundraiser for then-Gov. Gray Davis, a political adversary of the MWD who named his friend to two statewide water committees. “The thinking was: You make a deal with Keith Brackpool, and you’re on the good side of Gray Davis,” a former MWD board member told me in 2002.

Former Rep. Tony Coelho of California, an important Democratic Party fundraiser, served on the Cadiz board. Ex-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a former Democratic governor of Arizona, joined its payroll to work on international water deals, none of which came off.

In 2005, the company paid then-Public Utilities Commissioner Susan Kennedy, soon to become Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, a $120,000 consulting fee. In 2009, while Kennedy was working for Schwarzenegger, he endorsed the Cadiz scheme as “a path-breaking, new, sustainable groundwater conservation and storage project.”

Brackpool hobnobbed with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, contributing to his political campaigns, giving him a job between electoral posts and joining him on an East Asia trade junket.Despite all that, the project kept running into roadblocks, in part because of the opposition of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was determined to protect the desert ecology. Cadiz also has faced lawsuits from environmental groups, as well as adverse rulings by the Bureau of Land Management, an arm of the Interior Department with oversight of federal lands, including those the proposed pipelines would cross.

Column: How you can tell Trump cares nothing about water: He’s supporting the ridiculous Cadiz projectIt was obvious even during the presidential campaign that Donald Trump didn’t know much about water policy and didn’t have much inclination to learn.

Enter the project’s latest patron: Donald Trump’s Interior secretary, David Bernhardt, one of several Cabinet secretaries Trump put in place with the evident purpose ofundermining the agencies they were supposed to run.

Read more: Los Angeles Times »

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