Opinion: Deal with the drought or just keep suing?

March 31, 2016

OC Register/ Riverside Press Enterprise

A recent statewide public opinion survey found that Californians rank water supply and the drought as top concerns facing the state – above the economy, education, immigration and every other issue. We’ve responded by removing lawns and taking shorter showers – even praying for a robust El Niño – but it’s not enough. We need an assured water supply.

Yet the last time California tackled the task was four decades ago, when water first moved from the Sacramento Delta to Central Valley farms and cities in the Bay Area and Southern California. Since then, the state’s population has more than doubled, from 19 million to 39 million, with no significant system improvements. It is past time to emphasize that new water supply is as important as water conservation.

Two water projects that should already be under construction but remain mired in politics, over-regulation and litigation illustrate why it’s so difficult to advance new drought solutions.

First, the California Water Fix is the largest and most important proposed new water project in the state. It would begin to resolve the ecological degradation of the Sacramento Delta, California’s water hub, so more reliable water deliveries can be attained without threatening endangered species. Unfortunately, the California Water Fix still faces tough battles with opponents using the state’s antiquated environmental rules and litigation to slow the project. This despite the fact that both California’s people and environment would benefit.

Secondly, dozens of innovative local water supply projects are also vitally important. One such project that demonstrates cooperation between Orange County and the Inland Empire is the Cadiz Water Project – a desert aquifer to store water that would otherwise evaporate. Stored water would move from the Mojave Desert to Southern California as needed to serve 400,000 people annually in areas, like South Orange County, that do not have usable groundwater resources, nor can wait any longer for the California Water Fix.

Cadiz has committed to build the project infrastructure at no cost to taxpayers. This forward-thinking company also anticipated that “stop-everything” opponents would misuse California’s environmental laws to fight the project, so Cadiz worked hard to create an environmentally benign project. They invested $10 million expanding scientific knowledge of the Cadiz Aquifer and the desert springs, wildlife and plants in the area, and designed the project to cause no harm. In fact, without it, billions of gallons of desert water is lost yearly rather than put to storage in the aquifer, or for productive use. This is very much a conservation project.

The Cadiz Water Project has won the support of Republican and Democratic elected officials, labor, academia and business organizations like ours. Cadiz works with two public-sector partners: Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County, which prepared the project’s Environmental Impact Report, and San Bernardino County, which authorized, and will monitor, the project’s groundwater management plan. Still, Cadiz has had to defend the project against numerous lawsuits since initial approvals in 2012.

A state court judge recently ruled in favor of Cadiz, dismissing opponents’ claims. The state Court of Appeal is considering the case. Were it not for endless environmental litigation, Cadiz could be well on its way to becoming a new, drought-proof part of Southern California’s water solution.

We respectfully urge the Legislature to modernize California’s environmental laws to prohibit endless litigation, and we ask that the Court of Appeal allow Cadiz and its partners to complete a sustainable water solution that works for Southern California. The time is now.

Paul Granillo is president and CEO, Inland Empire Economic Partnership. Lucy Dunn is president and CEO, Orange County Business Council.

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