The sun sets on the Mojave National Preserve in Kelso, Calif., in early February. There is water under the desert, and whether to tap it on a commercial scale is a crucial debate in California. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)
CADIZ VALLEY, Calif. — The landscape here is more Martian than Earthly, rust and tan plains that rise in the distance to form the Old Woman Mountains to the east and the Bristols and Marbles to the north and west.
Almost everything here is protected by the federal government. The opportunity or threat, depending on your point of view, lies beneath the dusty surface that, after a recent rain, blooms with sprays of yellow desert dandelion.
There is water here in the Mojave Desert. A lot of it.
Whether to tap it on a commercial scale or leave it alone is a decades-old question the Trump administration has revived and the California legislature is visiting anew. The debate will help resolve whether private enterprise can effectively manage a public necessity in a state where who gets water and where it originates endures as the most volatile political issue.
It also is among several critical decisions on water policy facing the new Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, who in his first State of the State address in February highlighted what he called California’s “massive water challenges.” He already has scaled back one major water project — turning a proposed twin-tunnel pipeline to run beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta into a single tunnel — and will soon consider changes in river-water allocations for urban and agricultural users.
“Our water supply is becoming less reliable because of climate change, and our population is growing because of a strong economy,” Newsom said. “That means a lot of demand on an unpredictable supply.”
Newsom said this state of 40 million people, many living in near-desert climates, must “get past the old binaries like farmers versus environmentalists or North versus South.”
“Our approach can’t be either/or,” he said. “It must be yes/and.”
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His message will be tested here with a long-standing proposal to draw water from the desert — a new source that would add billions of gallons a year to the state’s overall supply but also potentially prompt new development and demand.
The fraught legacy of the state’s water wars goes back to 1913, when the Owens River was diverted to drive the growth of Los Angeles — killing Owens Lake and the agricultural economy of the Owens Valley — and it haunts the project to this day.
“This is an extremely difficult space in which to do business in this state,” said Scott Slater, chief executive of Cadiz, a publicly traded water companywith a huge interest in the Mojave. “These legacies shadow everything we do, and so we have to make sure what we are doing is right.”
Cadiz has been seeking since 1997 to tap into the Fenner Basin, an aquifer that sits beneath a portion of the 35,000 acres of private property that the company owns within the boundaries of the Mojave Trails National Monument. President Barack Obama created the preserve in his final year in office.
The aquifer is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Cadiz would draw water from the ground, pump it east through a proposed 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct, then sell it to water districts as far as 200 miles away. An estimated 100,000 households could be customers during the project’s initial 50-year term, which would generate billions of dollars in revenue for the company.
High hurdles remain, including a new legislative effort to slow the project and sort out the science behind it.
The company still needs a permit to join the aqueduct, operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest wholesale supplier in the United States. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also recently challenged Cadiz’s environmental assessment of the project, though the company does not believe it needs the agency’s permission to move ahead — except for its plans to alter streambeds along the pipeline’s proposed route, which runs mostly within a railroad right of way.
But if Cadiz can clear those obstacles, the project could be up and running within a year.
A percolating pond on Cadiz property in the Mojave. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)
“This will not provide enough water to be the solution to the state’s water problems,” Slater said. “But it is certainly part of the solution.”
The opposition has argued that the Cadiz plan would threaten fragile desert springs and deplete the groundwater far faster than seasonal rain and snow can replenish it, threatening flora and rare wildlife. Opponents also are newly concerned about how the environmental review process has played out.
“What’s at stake here now is the state of California’s ability to hold off against the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks,” said David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert program for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “They have tried unsuccessfully for years to take this water and move it to market. Now the threat has taken a new shape given how advantageously Cadiz has been treated by the Trump administration.”
Soon after the 2016 election, the Trump transition team included Cadiz as No. 15 on its priority list of “emergency and national security” projects, drawing sharp protest from critics including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Less than a year later, the administration exempted the project from a federal review that the Obama administration required because of the federal land involved in the pipeline construction.
The current acting Interior Department secretary, David Bernhardt, then the department’s second in charge, had worked with Cadiz as a partner in the law firm handling the company’s legal and lobbying efforts before entering the administration. Bernhardt served on Trump’s transition team, but he had formally recused himself from issues involving Cadiz when the administration waived the federal review.
The project has emerged as a cause celebre. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has urged state lawmakers to block it. So has the musician and record producer Moby and the pop star Sia, who has enlisted her nearly 4 million Twitter followers in the cause.
Newsom has yet to weigh in on the issue as governor. But his aides pointed to the comments he made during last year’s campaign, when he stated his opposition to the project and criticized Cadiz. The company had donated to the election effort of one of his Democratic primary opponents, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who worked for Cadiz for a year after leaving that office.
“I don’t like people buying influence,” Newsom said then. “I don’t like money determining the fate of even good ideas, let alone bad ideas. I don’t like the way this whole thing has played out.”
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