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Federal Officials Urged to Allow More Public Input on Controversial Mojave Water Project

Oct. 29, 2001

Federal Officials Urged to Allow More Public Input
on Controversial Mojave Water Project

Pumping Billions of Gallons of Groundwater to Southern California Could Create Dust Bowls and Threaten Imperiled Species

OAKLAND, Calif.   Public Citizen is calling on federal officials to give the public a greater opportunity to evaluate a massive water project in California s Mojave Desert that could dry out natural springs, create dust bowls and put threatened animals and plants   including the bighorn sheep, golden eagle and desert tortoise   at greater risk of extinction. The project has been criticized on numerous grounds, including the close relationship between California Gov. Gray Davis and the CEO of the corporation that stands to earn a half billion dollars from the project.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of Interior, has given the public just 30 days (until Nov. 5) to review and comment on a nearly foot-thick environmental study of the project. Public Citizen is asking the BLM to extend the comment period by 90 days and to release details about how overextraction of groundwater will be prevented.

Under the proposed arrangement, fruit growing company Cadiz Inc., which owns land atop an aquifer in the Mojave Desert, could sell as much as 60,000 acre-feet of native groundwater per year that s 20 billion gallons to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which serves 17 million people, including the population of Los Angeles. MWD is in search of new sources of water because California must reduce its take of Colorado River water, on which the district relies heavily.

In addition to selling the water, the company plans to use the site to store “surplus” water from the Colorado River, which is already so depleted that it no longer reaches the Pacific Ocean. The proposed project alarms many ecologists and conservationists, who say this would devastate groundwater resources, dry out springs and wells, jeopardize threatened species and result in dust bowls on the scale of Owens Valley. Additionally, the 35-mile pipeline and elaborate infrastructure that Cadiz wants to build could further damage habitats of imperiled animals and plants.

The media in Southern California have raised questions about the relationship between Cadiz CEO Keith Brackpool and Gov. Davis, who has the power to shape the outcome of the project. Brackpool was a leading contributor to Davis gubernatorial campaign and has since become his leading water advisor.

“This project is the mother of all bad ideas,” said Jane Kelly, director of Public Citizen s California office. “It is the standard against which flawed natural resource management should be judged.”

The aquifer underneath Cadiz s land also lies under portions of the federally managed, 25 million-acre California Desert Conservation Area, which means the company could exhaust taxpayer-owned water supplies. Additionally, any environmental damage extending onto federal land would become the financial responsibility of U.S. taxpayers. The Conservation Area was established by an act of Congress in 1980 “to ensure as nearly as humanly possible [that] the recognition that the California Desert is not a wasteland but a precious public resource.”

Moreover, the BLM s environmental study of the project is flawed in several ways. For example, it sidesteps the issue of the rate at which the Cadiz aquifer will be refilled by natural sources. The U.S. Geological Survey is on record as questioning Cadiz s estimates. And the BLM has failed to define its authority over the project, thus shielding the nature and depth of its oversight role from public review. This is a crucial point, as a limited role by BLM would put the MWD and Cadiz in the position of policing themselves.

“To avoid an inherent conflict of interest, federal officials must take an active role to ensure that the taxpayers will not be ripped off,” Kelly said. “Federal lands have already been plundered for their timber and minerals. Water should not be next on the list.”

In a recent letter to the BLM, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and U.S. Reps. Ken Calvert (R) and Jerry Lewis (R), all from California, asked the agency to answer a variety of questions about the project, including the issue of Cadiz drawing water from beneath federal land. Public Citizen has urged Feinstein and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), also from California, to request the BLM to extend the public comment period and release the details of BLM s oversight of the project. If the BLM delays the release of this information, the agency will have deprived the public of the opportunity to weigh in on the project, Public Citizen said.