Interior Department Snubs Senators, Denies Request to Extend Public Comment Period for Controversial Mojave Water Project

Nov. 8, 2001

Interior Department Snubs Senators, Denies Request to Extend Public Comment Period for Controversial Mojave Water Project

Coalition of Local, State and National Groups Detail Project s Problems

OAKLAND, Calif.   Rejecting written requests from U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, federal Department of Interior officials this week denied the public more time to review a massive groundwater mining and storage project planned for California s Mojave Desert. The project, called the Cadiz Water Project, has raised significant opposition from conservation and public interest groups, who say it is environmentally harmful and economically unsound. In particular, the project threatens to deplete the aquifer underlying the Mojave National Preserve and several federal wilderness areas, causing massive dust storms, drying out mountain springs and further imperiling the threatened desert tortoise and other sensitive species.

Feinstein and Boxer, both of California, wrote letters last week to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Nina Rose Hatfield, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The senators asked Norton and Hatfield to give the public more opportunity to study and comment on what is generally regarded as a precedent-setting project. The requests were rejected in a Nov. 5 letter from Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles for bureaucratic reasons.

The project would permit Cadiz Inc., an agricultural company that owns property surrounded by the federally protected California Desert Conservation Area, to store “surplus” water from the Colorado River in an underground aquifer. Cadiz would then sell the water   along with native groundwater   to the Municipal Water District of Southern California (MWD), which serves approximately 17 million people, including the populations of Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County.

By pumping out up to 20 billion gallons of native groundwater per year, the project could devastate the aquifer, dry out natural springs, create dust bowls and threaten animal populations, including the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. The project also could be worth between $500 million and $1 billion to Cadiz, which is controlled by Keith Brackpool, a confidant of and leading campaign contributor to California Gov. Gray Davis.

In addition to requesting that the comment period be extended, Feinstein posed several questions that haven t been answered by BLM, the federal agency overseeing the project. Her questions dealt with:

  • the amount of native groundwater that will be extracted over the project s 50-year span;
  • the project s compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act;
  • the rate of natural recharge of the groundwater aquifer underlying the project; and
  • the reasons BLM officials have not put clear limitations on the amount of water that can be extracted.

“In its rush to approve this misguided project, the BLM is running roughshod over the concerns of California citizens,” said Jane Kelly, director of Public Citizen s California office in Oakland. “When an agency isn t doing its job properly, our elected officials must take action. They have done so in this case, but they are being ignored due to agency hubris.”

Public Citizen and a coalition of national, state and local conservation groups including the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the California League of Conservation Voters, which have been opposing the project for more than a year, filed comments with the BLM this week, criticizing as inadequate the agency s environmental impact study.

“The agencies have again failed to meaningfully address the severe environmental harms this project is likely to cause by draining the aquifer,” said Simeon Herskovits, senior staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, which represents the environmental coalition. “If they dealt forthrightly with the aquifer s low rate of recharge and the high cost and difficulty of ameliorating the likely harms, this project would never be approved. This project will translate into serious persistent environmental problems and huge hidden costs to the public down the road.”

The environmental groups cite BLM s failure to provide a reliable rate at which the aquifer will be recharged. Both the U.S. Geological Survey and the coalition have stated that the actual recharge rate is far lower than the project proponents estimates. Pumping aggressively, as proposed, would lead to overextraction of groundwater and environmental damage that would cost millions of dollars to mitigate. Further, the MWD could wind up paying more than three times what it currently pays for water. If groundwater supplies are lower than expected, the district s $150 million investment in the project could be squandered. Additionally, the Fort Mojave Tribe has raised concerns about the BLM s failure to conduct a thorough ethnographic survey of the area. The tribe contends that the project will damage tribal cultural resources.

“This situation is intolerable,” Kelly said. “The BLM s failure to do its job could cost the ratepayers millions.”

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Go to the Western Environmental Law Center Web site.

Read Public Citizen’s comments.

Read comments filed by nine other groups.

Read California congressional members’ request for information on the project.

Read the Department of the Interior’s Sept. 28 response to Sen. Feinstein.

Read Sen. Boxer’s letter on the public comment period.

Read Sen. Feinstein’s letter on the public comment period.

Read the Department of Interior’s response.