California is world-renowned for its protection of natural resources, and its environmental laws are America’s strongest — far more stringent than their federal equivalents. In fact, the rigor of California’s environmental process has caused many high-profile projects to seek legislative exemptions from state review. So when a critical infrastructure project makes it through California’s environmental permitting processes and is upheld by all levels of the state’s courts, it’s a big achievement.
For nearly a decade, the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, which will create a new water supply for 400,000 people and thousands of jobs, has followed the entire California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and approval process from start to finish — public comment periods, public hearings, board approvals and litigation, all of which concluded last year, when the 4th District Court of Appeal sustained every approval of the project and concluded that it could be operated safely and sustainably.
So it’s disappointing that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her allies, including state Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), continue to perpetuate a series of myths about the Cadiz project as part of a campaign to derail it, including in a recent op-ed article for the Los Angeles Times. Here are just a few examples of the most common myths:
• Feinstein and Friedman claim the project would be “an environmental disaster” that could “destroy the Mojave Desert.” However, independent experts, public agency decisions and 12 state court opinions have concluded that the Cadiz project is no such threat to the Mojave Desert or the surrounding ecosystem, including the springs, flora, fauna and aquifer. In their op-ed, Feinstein and Friedman cited an old U.S. Geological Survey estimate of the area’s water recharge rate, prepared in 2000 for a different project. They fail to acknowledge that this out-of-date estimate was evaluated during the project’s CEQA review process and set aside in light of actual, measured data not previously available to the USGS. What’s more, the project’s use of groundwater was ultimately limited by San Bernardino County to a specific amount — 0.3% of total storage, annually — and to a hard floor in the water table, making the recharge rate moot. It is arithmetically, physically and legally impossible for the Cadiz project to do what Feinstein and Friedman claim it could do, given the county’s strict conditions and court-approved management provisions.
• Feinstein and Friedman also allege that Cadiz avoided review by locating its pipeline in a railroad right-of-way. But they ignore the fact that the federal government concluded in 2009 that no federal permits were required. Multiple federal agencies participated in the project’s CEQA review, and their comments were fully incorporated and addressed. Furthermore, sharing a right-of-way with a railroad is customary practice. Most railroads have other infrastructure in them — fiber optic lines, electric lines, sewer lines or gas lines. This “co-location” practice minimizes the potential for negative environmental effects because it protects virgin lands from new infrastructure, and it helps utilities better service communities in need. This doesn’t mean a project is not subject to environmental scrutiny. It just means a project doesn’t need a secondary permit to use the same corridor that the host railroad was already permitted to use.
• Feinstein and Friedman claim that the new administration is dismantling the federal regulatory framework that could have prevented Cadiz from using the railroad right-of-way. This is very misleading, and it also ignores the role that Feinstein herself played in any “dismantling.” After the federal government determined in 2009 that no federal permits were required, Feinstein wielded her tremendous federal appropriations power to create a new regulatory framework that would force the Bureau of Land Management to certify that the Cadiz project was within the scope of the railroad right-of-way, a new requirement unique to Cadiz. At the same time, Feinstein’s appropriations policy prohibited the BLM from processing any applications for permits that could be required under that new framework. While publicly insisting that Cadiz must undergo a federal review, Feinstein blocked all potential for there to ever be one. This Catch-22 set the stage for a widely criticized precedent that threatened the sensible use of existing railroads for necessary infrastructure — a precedent now being addressed by the federal government at the request of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.
Feinstein’s and Friedman’s agenda — to stop this court-validated, job-creating water project — is no secret. But it’s not based in fact or law. The Cadiz project is a privately financed California project, regulated in accordance with our state and local laws and supported broadly by major labor unions; local, state and federal representatives; and business, agriculture and public-interest organizations. It offers a new, sustainable water supply, thousands of jobs and more than $875 million in economic activity — all without any negative environmental effects.
We are grateful that the Legislature didn’t advance Feinstein’s and Friedman’s agenda in the recently ended legislative session. And we urge California’s leaders to continue to stand up for jobs, for citizens who need water, and for our state’s strong environmental review laws by rejecting sustained efforts to change the rules of the game for Cadiz or any other CEQA-approved project.
Tracy Rafter Hernandez is chief executive of the Los Angeles County Business Federation. Carlos Rodriguez is chief executive of the Baldy View chapter of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California.
This piece is part of Blowback, our online forum for rebuttals to The Times. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.
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