Our state’s landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is one of the most rigorous environmental laws in the nation. Unlike federal environmental regulations, CEQA goes beyond identifying environmental impacts, requiring that they be mitigated to a level of insignificance. By utilizing a process that must consider all opinions, CEQA ensures that certified projects are actually safe for the environment and worthy of moving forward.
That’s why a recent Desert Sun editorial, “California officials must maintain pressure on Cadiz aquifer project” was disappointing. Its call for state officials to target the project didn’t detail the CEQA process we completed and the safeguards and enforcement provisions imposed during the process and upheld by the courts.
The Cadiz Water Project will create a new water supply for 400,000 Californians by conserving groundwater before it is lost to evaporation in the eastern Mojave Desert. The watershed that brings groundwater to the project area is twice the size of the entire Coachella Valley and contains more water underground than Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir. The project would capture less than one-half of one percent of this groundwater annually before it evaporates, to safely provide a new water supply.
During Cadiz’s public CEQA process, all comments and studies, including those brought forward by opponents, were evaluated and incorporated into the Project’s Environmental Impact Report. After two public agencies approved the EIR and the Project, the approvals were challenged, but upheld in Superior Court and then sustained by the California Court of Appeal against every claim. No further studies were ordered, or approvals changed. Still, the Desert Sun editorial again raises environmentalists’ claims that the project could “severely compromise” desert ecosystems, even though the CEQA approvals and the Court opinions concluded that the project, as designed and managed, would not harm the desert environment. The editorial also omits that San Bernardino County separately reviewed the Project and will regulate operations to prevent adverse impacts under a court-approved plan.
The Desert Sun editorial also misses the mark on the recent federal certification regarding the project’s use of a railroad right-of-way. It’s true that the government withdrew an evaluation crafted during the Obama administration, but that assessment was already under investigation by Obama’s own Interior inspector general and the pre-Trump Congress, and criticized by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Our proposal to co-locate water infrastructure in a railroad right-of-way is consistent with 100 years of federal practice. It complies with the policy of past administrations, including President Obama, who allowed infrastructure to be installed along railroad tracks without secondary permitting. Such co-location doesn’t avoid environmental review; it avoids environmental impacts to open federal lands — a virtue, not a vice.
California has rightly taken a stand against federal policies and decisions that threaten our environmental laws. But that’s not the case here. Instead, the federal government is supporting local infrastructure permitting and control of resources, which is better for California.
Sadly, opponents of the Cadiz Project, buttressed by one U.S. senator, have continually distorted the public record and moved the goal posts, dissatisfied by the outcome at every point along the way. But, the truth remains: The Cadiz Project has always followed the law and policy at the local, state and federal level, and we will continue to do so as we deliver a new, environmentally sustainable water supply for Southern California.
Courtney Degener, whose family has lived in the Coachella Valley for more than 25 years, is a vice president at Cadiz Inc. overseeing the company’s external affairs. Email her at email@example.com.