Reversing an Obama-era policy, the Trump administration is clearing a path for a private company to pump water from beneath the Mojave Desert and sell it in Southern California.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management previously ruled that Cadiz Inc. couldn't use an existing federal railroad right of way to build a 43-mile pipeline to carry water from its private Mojave wells to the Colorado River Aqueduct.
The decision would have forced Cadiz to go through the long and costly process of completing environmental studies for the pipeline.
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But in a March 29 memo, the BLM revoked two previous instruction memos that provided policy guidance and underpinned that decision, effectively opening the way for a reversal.
The new policy also removes a future decision from the BLM's field office in California — which made the 2015 ruling — and puts it in the hands of the agency's Washington, D.C., office.
Environmental critics have charged that the groundwater pumping could dry up desert springs that plants and wildlife need to survive, especially in Mojave National Preserve and the new Mojave Trails National Preserve.
However, environmentalists have lost several state court challenges to the project.
Cadiz was one of only a handful of California projects that made its way onto the Trump administration priority infrastructure list. It has garnered support from local government and in Congress.
"We are grateful for the bipartisan efforts to reverse this errant BLM policy," Cadiz CEO Scott Slater said in a statement Tuesday.
Slater is a water attorney affiliated with Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck, a law firm that runs an influential Washington lobbying operation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has opposed the Cadiz project for years, said the Trump administration "has once again put corporate profits ahead of the public's interest" and was trying to muscle through a project that would have an "irreversible" impact on the California desert.
"The Mojave Desert is a national treasure that belongs to the American people, not a private company" and Feinstein said she will fight the latest move.
She has argued that Cadiz would withdraw more water from the desert aquifer each year than could be replenished through natural sources.
Cadiz said Feinstein was relying on outdated data.
The project "will safely and sustainably create new water for 400,000 people, has broad bipartisan community support, will generate 5,900 new jobs, and will drive nearly $1 billion in economic growth," its CEO said in his statement.
The project still needs approval from the Metropolitan Water District to use the Colorado River Aqueduct to move the water into Southern California.
Discussions are continuing, water district spokesman Bob Muir told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.