Reject latest effort to undermine needed local water projects
Infrastructure projects that secure California’s future are being pursued every day in our great state. For better or worse, California is known to have the toughest environmental review laws in the nation with its CEQA framework that can impact these projects. CEQA has been roundly criticized over the years given the extent of its requirements and the legal challenges it allows — killing or delaying good projects that could create well-paying jobs and needed affordable resources for working families. In recent years, the Legislature, recognizing the impediment CEQA can be to needed infrastructure, has moved bills that try to reform CEQA or that grant exemptions from it.
Yet this legislative session an old bill that would undermine the already rigorous CEQA process has been reincarnated and reintroduced as Senate Bill 307, introduced by Richard Roth, D-Riverside. A rehash of a twice-rejected bill, SB307 is being packaged as “just one more study” of water projects in California. Its target has been Cadiz, a water infrastructure project on private farm land in the desert that aims to reduce a mind-boggling loss of 330 gallons of groundwater per second (over 10 billion gallons every year) to evaporation and make that water available to supplement regional water supplies. Once implemented, it could provide safe and affordable water for 400,000 Southern Californians. In a second phase, the project could import and store surplus water in wet years, like the current year, to provide insurance against future dry ones.
As a resident and member of the business community in the Inland Empire-Riverside area, I know first-hand that affordable, safe local water supplies are needed to secure the future success of our community. Southern California has a naturally arid climate and has no water to waste. And while reducing our daily water use can and should be part of the equation, the truth is that we must also develop new water resources to improve outcomes for our communities.
The Cadiz Project has been approved and deemed safe for the environment under CEQA and closely examined through studies by expert geologists and hydrologists from leading universities across the country. San Bernardino County, as the acting local authority, would monitor the project through an extensive groundwater management plan, featuring more than 100 monitoring installations and limitations on pumping.
And a new independent review of a groundwater management plan for the Cadiz Water Project commissioned by local water authorities Three Valleys Municipal Water District and Jurupa Community Services District located in the Inland Empire has further concluded that monitoring and mitigation measures for the Cadiz Project are appropriate and protective of the surrounding ecosystem in the Mojave Desert. SB307 threatens to undermine this level of local control and CEQA by enacting unnecessary, duplicative and undefined state review from outside agencies based in Sacramento that have no relation to the project.
Under a veil of trying to protect the vast California desert, SB307 focuses squarely on the Cadiz Water Project aiming to trap it in another state-run permitting process promoted by special interests who have challenged the Cadiz Project for more than a decade.
If the Legislature allows such special attacks after state agencies have already participated in CEQA process, this tactic will be applied again and again, injecting uncertainty for other much-needed projects reviewed, including vital community projects such as affordable housing and transportation.
Local governing bodies best understand the needs of their constituents and the capacity of their local environment. Sacramento must respect the decision-making of local authorities rather than ignoring them under pressure from political interests. It’s time for the Legislature to allow the Cadiz Water Project to move ahead and signal an end to blatant obstruction of reviewed and approved projects. Solving the tough problems of ensuring a fair, equitable California for all requires it.
Steven Figueroa is president of the Inland Empire Latino Coalition and a lifelong advocate for improving the lives and well-being of communities of color in Southern California.
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