An innovative project to squeeze water from the desert to help quench perpetually thirsty Southern California showed some promise – until the Biden administration decided to halt the plans. The courts might rule against the White House, but for now it looks just like another day in Can’t Do/Won’t Do California.
Cadiz Inc., a publicly traded water resource developer, has planned for years to draw groundwater from property it has owned in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County since the 1980s. The water would be captured before it flowed into an underground aquifer, then pumped it into the Colorado River Aqueduct 43 miles away. From there, it would be sold to local water districts and eventually put to use by roughly 400,000 customers. It’s estimated the project would create nearly 6,000 jobs.
Naturally something so sensible would attract opposition, even though it has been approved under the California Environmental Quality Act – a task that produced a 6,000-page Environmental Impact Report – and has been under review by authorities for nearly two decades. California lawmakers are one of Cadiz’s most zealous antagonists, and their efforts to shut it down eventually forced the company in 2019 to seek an alternative, an existing 220-mile-long oil-and-gas pipeline that can be converted to water conveyance.
Then there is the usual assortment of activists and busybodies. For instance, a Center for Biological Diversity scientist claimed that it “will suck the desert dry” and is “an unsustainable water-privatization scheme.” But the Cadiz footprint which, at roughly 50 square miles, is only about one-one thousandth of the Mojave’s 50,000 square miles.
The narrative also overlooks the fact that left alone, the water flows into a salt lake, from which it either evaporates or is contaminated by the salt. In the deeply researched “Winning the Water Wars,” author Steven Greenhut says there’s simply “no evidence the project would” sap the desert. “It’s just grandiose rhetoric that taps into vague environmental sentiments.”
If somehow the project were to cause negative impacts, though, the county has the authority to step in and reduce the pumping. It can even stop it altogether.
And about that privatization “scheme”: Private companies, not government, are what keeps this country running. In fact, water has been commonly “privatized throughout the West” says Reed Watson, one-time executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center, now at Clemson University. America’s West would not have developed as it has without private companies providing clean water.
Yet far too often, government is dedicated to getting in the way when the private sector is smoothly humming along, which is exactly what the Obama administration did with Cadiz. The Trump administration rescued the project, but because politics are politics, the Biden White House is trying to reverse the Trump reversal. Rather than defend the previous administration’s decision, federal lawyers are saying that the Cadiz system was inappropriately fast-tracked, siding with an activist lawsuit and asking a U.S. district court to vacate the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to issue a right-of-way to Cadiz.
At this point, it would be hard to blame Cadiz if the company abandoned its plans and walked away from the parched land it wants to bring water to. It’s shown that the project is not a threat to the environment, its product is safe for human consumption, and pledged to donate $5 million in aid to small systems in Southern California to ensure clean water deliveries, and yet it continues to run into stone walls. This isn’t how California was built. This is how California starts to fade.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.