WSJ: Trying to Get Water to California but Torpedoed by Regulators

WSJ: Trying to Get Water to California but Torpedoed by Regulators

The Obama administration and Dianne Feinstein keep blocking a private project to aid the still-parched state.
April 8, 2016
Wall Street Journal

Although El Niño has increased the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, the Golden State’s historic drought isn’t over. Yet the Obama administration has decided to block a privately financed project that could supply water to 400,000 Californians, even though the project has been approved by an alphabet soup of state and local agencies. The result will be to trap vast amounts of a precious resource beneath the Mojave Desert. Is water the new fossil fuel?

This tale of political and regulatory obstructionism begins in 1998, when Cadiz Inc., a Los Angeles-based company, developed plans for a groundwater bank and well-field on 70 square miles of private land overlying the base of the Mojave’s massive Fenner Valley and Orange Blossom Wash watersheds. Over centuries the aquifers there have amassed as much as 34 million acre feet of water, enough to sustain all of California’s households for several years.

However, tens of thousands of acre feet percolate into salty dry lakes and evaporate each year. Cadiz proposed capturing and exporting the groundwater to Southern California residents. The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project could also help store occasional excess flows from the Colorado River that would otherwise drain to the Pacific Ocean.

Water experts such as those at the Public Policy Institute of California have recommended using groundwater banks to recharge aquifers during wet years and expand the state’s storage capacity. Relative to dams, storing water underground reduces evaporation and environmental harm.

None of this mattered to various green lobbies and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who complained that the water project would deplete mountain springs and harm wildlife. But environmental reviews by hydrogeologists confirm that the nearest spring—located 11 miles away and 1,000 feet above the aquifer—would not be affected. Nor would fauna, which don’t rely on groundwater. After an exhaustive review, the U.S. Interior Department approved the project in 2002, but Sen. Feinstein maintained her opposition.
Cadiz sought to assuage her in 2008 by reducing the planned annual water exports to 50,000 acre-feet from 150,000. It also negotiated to use the Arizona & California Railroad’s (ARZC) right of way to build a 43-mile underground pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct (which feeds water to Southern California). But a few days after Cadiz announced its agreement with ARZC, Ms. Feinstein launched another attack, demandingthat the Interior Department “conduct a detailed analysis” of “permissible uses” of railroad rights of way.

The department’s long-standing policy allowed railroads without federal permitting to run power, telephone and fiber optic lines on their rights of way, streamlining environmental review for public works, including wind and solar farms. But in 2011, Interior revised its policy to limit railroad rights of way that were granted in 1875—such as ARZC’s—to “activities that derive from or further a railroad purpose.”

Curiously, the new rules apply only to projects like the Cadiz pipeline. Telephone wires and fiber optic lines, maintenance yards and “related improvements,” could be permitted “on a case-by-case basis” if they helped the railroad operate.

Cadiz would go on to spend $12 million on capital improvements to benefit the railroad, such as a maintenance access road, turbines to power safety equipment and information systems, as well as state-of-the-art automated fire suppression. No matter. Last October the Bureau of Land Management ruled that the Cadiz pipeline “does not derive from or further a railroad purpose.” The innovative fire-suppression system “is an uncommon industry practice,” the agency caviled, and the “origin of the access road is to support the non-railroad purpose of water conveyance.” Building the pipeline without authorization, it warned, “could result in the BLM instituting trespass proceedings.”

The BLM added that its ruling cannot be appealed because “it is not a final agency decision.” A final decision would require a formal regulatory review. But Ms. Feinstein has attached riders to every Interior Department spending bill since 2008 that bar the agency from reviewing Cadiz.

Amid this regulatory hustle, a California state appellate court last month heard six challenges to the project, all of which had been rejected by a trial court two years ago. In 2012, the Santa Margarita Water District’s final environmental impact report noted that the project’s only significant effects would be temporary dust from construction and the hazard of population and employment growth from a larger water supply, which has driven opposition from green groups. While trumpeting the BLM’s decision in October, the Center for Biological Diversity complained that the Cadiz project would “increase urban sprawl in coastal Southern California.”

So the water storage project, long overdue, remains stuck in regulatory purgatory. Without a Hail Mary attempt by Congress to unplug the Obama water blockage, thirsty Californians can only pray for a Republican president who views economic development as a blessing rather than curse.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

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