This is the third installment of the Center for Western Priorities’ “Postcards from the West” blog series, featuring place-based stories about public lands in the West.
For three decades, Cadiz Inc. has chased its dream to drain precious groundwater from underneath the California desert and send it to the urban areas and farms of Southern California. Despite scientific studies showing that the project would jeopardize the Mojave Desert’s landmark Bonanza Springs, the company’s plan is poised to get the green light from senior officials in the Trump administration.
Cadiz’s plan is to transport water from beneath a private inholding in Mojave Trails National Monument, one of the largest tracts of undeveloped wildlands in the country, where water is scarce and vital. Beginning north of Joshua Tree National Park, Cadiz’s pipeline would travel across 43 miles of desert to Orange County, extracting 16 billion gallons of water a year.
Although the company does hold parcels of private land and certain water rights, building a pipeline from the desert towards the coast would require approval from the federal government and the state of California. A few years ago the Obama administration put a temporary hold on the project when it required the company obtain a permit to build along a railroad right-of-way. But in October of 2017, less than nine months into the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management swept this review aside.
“The rapidity at which the Trump administration moved the Cadiz project… was frankly disturbing, but also amazing,” said David Lamfrom, California Desert and National Wildlife Programs Director for the National Parks Conservation Association in an interview with the Center for Western Priorities’ Go West, Young Podcast. “It was just months until they started gutting all of the rules and regulations that had been put in place to ensure that the project had safeguards.”
The speedy action is not surprising given that David Bernhardt, the Interior Department’s second-in-command, was a consultant for Cadiz. During his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt promised to recuse himself from the project for a year, but desert advocates are suspicious. “The writing is on the wall, if something is in your box of interest that’s something that you’re aware of,” said Lamfrom. “That’s part of the deep concern that we had is the influence to allow these projects to move forward… without even time to deliberate,” he said.
If the Cadiz pipeline gets built and starts delivering water, Bernhardt’s former employer, the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, is poised to make tens of millions of dollars thanks to 200,000 shares of Cadiz stock it received as part of its representation deal.
Although the project has advanced at the federal level, it still requires approval from the California State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Lands Commission, because the pipeline would travel across state trust lands. Powerful California politicians and stakeholders have spoken out against the project, including Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, an association of nine Southern California Native nations. These leaders join local communities that have been pushing back against Cadiz for years.
“It’s almost a saga. For generations this company has been trying to take this water from the ground, and for generations various activist community efforts have kept that water in the ground,” said Lamfrom.
One such effort to protect the California desert led to the creation of Mojave Trails National Monument, which was designated in 2016 after decades of community organizing. At 1.6 million acres, Mojave Trails is the largest national monument in California, connecting Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve in what Lamfrom calls a “wonderland of conservation,” one of the largest intact and protected landscapes in the Lower 48.
In the Mojave Desert, water is stored in underground aquifers, which regenerate the few surface springs that wildlife and people have relied on for thousand of years. “Desert springs are crucial to our way of life as traditional gathering places, sacred sites, as places to rest and restore ourselves. These sacred places have long been and continue to be used for prayer and ceremony by our tribal communities,” wrote President of the Native American Lands Conservancy, Michael Madrigal, in an op-ed. “That’s in part why we worked to help establish Mojave Trails National Monument: to protect important springs and other cultural sites from unsustainable industrial projects.”
One of the most prominent water features in the region is Bonanza Springs, the largest year-round water source within a thousand square miles. Bonanza Springs is an irreplaceable oasis that large mammals like mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and foxes, rely on to move across the vast desert, even in times of drought.
A new peer-reviewed study published this spring in The Journal of Environmental Forensics found that Cadiz’s scheme threatens the iconic spring, adding to a series of scientific studies of that question the environmental integrity of Cadiz’s proposal. By looking at isotopes in water, hydrogeologist Andy Zydon found that Bonanza Springs isn’t fed by rain like other local surface springs but that the water shares more characteristics with groundwater — proving a “hydrologic link” to the aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument.
These data support the findings of the United States Geological Survey and National Park Service, and contradicts one-sided science touted and produced by Cadiz and its benefactors as a means to shirk environmental review.
Cadiz’s push to drain Bonanza Springs and threaten the Mojave Desert’s valuable water reserves is emblematic of the Trump administration’s willingness to value corporations over communities. “Cadiz needs to accept this new scientific study and abandon its goal of draining the Mojave Desert of its most precious resource: water,” said Sen. Feinstein. “It’s time Cadiz and its investors give up on this desert boondoggle.”
Speeding through approvals for Deputy Secretary Bernhardt’s former client now joins Secretary Zinke’s land deal involving the chairman of Halliburton on the laundry list of conflicts of interest in Trump’s Interior Department. Instead of draining the swamp, this political favor could actually drain a critical California desert spring.