Lawsuit seeks to block California desert water project

Environmental activists sued Tuesday to halt a plan to pump water from beneath the Mojave Desert and sell it to Southern California cities and counties.

The lawsuit takes aim at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for allowing Cadiz Inc. to build a 43-mile pipeline to transfer the water from its desert wells into the Colorado River Aqueduct so it can be sold to water districts.

The BLM released guidelines during the Obama administration to block construction of the pipeline along an existing federal railroad right of way, but the Trump administration reversed them this year and the project is on a priority infrastructure list.

The lawsuit says the new guidelines would illegally permit construction of the pipeline on public land, including the newly created Mojave Trails National Monument, "while circumventing laws enacted to protect human health and the environment."

According to the suit, Cadiz could draw perhaps billions of gallons of water from fragile desert aquifers — far more than could be replenished naturally — and that would dry up streams that are important for plants and wildlife and create dry lakebeds that would produce wind-blown dust pollution.

The suit also contends that the underground water contains a cancer-causing chemical and other toxins, such as mercury.

"The Cadiz project will suck the desert dry while developers count their money," said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit along with the Center for Food Safety. "It's an unsustainable water-privatization scheme."

The BLM ruled in October that Cadiz could use the current railroad right of way rather than having to seek approval through a process that would include public comment and an environmental review, the suit said.

The BLM had not reviewed the complaint and could not comment, spokeswoman Sarah K. Webster said in a statement.

Cadiz called the allegations about water quality "an intentionally misleading scare tactic" and said the groundwater meets all state and federal standards for drinking water.

While it isn't named in the lawsuit, a company statement said that for nearly a decade, the Center for Biological Diversity and other critics have made claims "that have been rejected by every public agency and court of law that has ever considered them. We expect the same outcome in this instance."

Critics have lost several previous court battles to halt the project. They suffered another setback in September when a California Senate committee refused to permit a bill to advance that would have required more state permissions for the project to proceed. Specifically, it would have required two additional state agencies to determine whether the project will harm natural and cultural resources.