In an effort to stop one water project after California’s Courts rejected their arguments in 12 separate cases, proponents of Senate Bill 307 (Roth) are pursuing a new set of environmental permitting rules above and beyond the existing California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process for the third legislative session in a row. By further moving the goal posts on the state’s already extremely rigorous environmental review and permitting process, SB 307 sets a dangerous precedent for critical infrastructure projects – housing, transportation, energy – across the state, jeopardizing access to these vital services.
SB 307 directly targets the Cadiz Water Project, which would manage the groundwater basin beneath
an existing privately held agriculture property in the Mojave Desert to stop an ongoing loss of clean water to evaporation and create new groundwater storage capacity. When fully operational, the Project will make available clean drinking water for 400,000 people across Southern California. The Project successfully completed its CEQA review process in 2010–2012, which included participation by state and federal agencies, and its environmental sustainability has been upheld in each and every legal challenge brought by the proponents of SB 307
Hundreds of water suppliers across the state are unable to reliably deliver safe water to their customers, and disadvantaged communities are among those most likely to suffer from poor water quality and water supply shortages. At a time when California is struggling to fulfill its obligation to provide safe, clean drinking water to all communities, particularly in inland and desert areas, SB 307 creates a new, undefined permitting process for water projects that could be used to deter sources of clean drinking water from being developed or implemented.
SB 307 creates a completely new and additional regulatory process for water projects, including those that have successfully been approved in accordance with CEQA and local groundwater law. In doing so, the bill undermines what is widely understood to be the strictest environmental review process in the nation—even more rigorous than its federal counterpart, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It also upends the Legislature’s recent achievement of enacting stronger groundwater laws under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act by taking authority away from local regulators. Re-opening decisions made under CEQA at the request of special interests threatens the sanctity of California’s environmental protection laws.
By changing the rules of the game for certain projects, SB 307 sets a dangerous precedent and poses a potential threat to any infrastructure project in California, including water infrastructure, transportation, school construction, hospital and affordable housing projects. New housing projects, in particular, are inextricably tied to a reliable supply of water. By creating a new, undefined regulatory process for projects in the desert, the Legislature is also creating unnecessary uncertainty for housing development in a region that chronically lacks housing.
California’s environmental laws currently empower local jurisdictions to review and approve local infrastructure projects. The undefined environmental review process in SB 307 takes away the regulatory authority already held and exercised by local officials and gives it to entities that are not accountable to local residents. Local governments that have done their due diligence and have accounted for the needs of their communities will have their voices
Special interest groups opposed to the Cadiz Water Project have worked for more than a decade to frustrate its development through a variety of local, state and federal processes. Despite those efforts, the Project has successfully earned permits and approvals that were ultimately upheld by the California Court of Appeal. By their own admission these groups are using the legislative process to force a do-over. If successful, the same special-interest groups will forever use the Legislature to move the goal posts and kill projects they do not support.
SB 307 is opposed by a broad coalition of water providers, labor unions, business groups, municipalities and hydrologists, including the Laborers International Union of Southern California, California Special Districts Association, California Chamber of Commerce, California Building Industry Association, Municipal Water District of Orange County and California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. of Southern California, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Southern California Partnership for Jobs, Engineering Contractors Association and California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
For the third legislative session in a row, proponents of Senate Bill 307 (Roth) are proposing a new set of environmental permitting rules for water projects outside of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process, undermining the state’s rigorous environmental review laws, jeopardizing clean drinking water for communities across Southern California, and setting a dangerous precedent for future infrastructure projects across the state. In an effort to advance this misguided policy, proponents of SB 307 have perpetuated a number of myths and false claims:
1 Proponents of SB 307 simply want to resolve an issue of conflicting science relating to the Cadiz Water Project’s potential impact on nearby springs.
As outlined in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee analysis: “What Is The Objective Of The Proponents? There are at least two camps. One group is clearly trying to simply kill the project. They won’t be satisfied until the project is totally abandoned. Another group simply wants to ensure that the project is sized appropriately, whatever that size might be.”
In fact, SB 307 proponents repeatedly refer to the measure as part of its effort to “stop Cadiz” and proponents have worked to garner support for the measure, they continually tout the fact that the bill is a way to kill the Project. As presently drafted, the bill gives new powers to the State Lands Commission to prohibit the Project from proceeding if it identifies any potential adverse impacts to any resource in the desert. It does not require that SLC propose mitigations or allow the project to address these findings via its existing CEQA mitigations or local permits. This standard of review is easily abused.
2 SB 307 is necessary to replace a government review that would have happened under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
The Cadiz Water Project has gone through a thorough, transparent environmental review in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act, which is widely known to be the most stringent environmental review law in the nation—far more stringent than NEPA, its federal counterpart. Numerous state, local and federal agencies participated in the CEQA review starting in 2011, and these approvals were upheld by multiple rulings by the California Superior Court and the Court of Appeal. The State Lands Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife—the two agencies SB 307 charges with the new review process—both received the CEQA documents and had the opportunity to participate from the beginning. Neither agency challenged the Project’s final review.
3 SB 307 is needed to protect a critical aquifer from being overdrafted.
The aquifer where the Cadiz Water Project is located is already draining under natural conditions, as billions of gallons of clean groundwater are flowing to salt sinks then becoming ten times saltier than the ocean and evaporating. The Project is designed to better manage the basin to reduce this evaporative loss and make conserved water available to communities in need or reliable supplies. The Project can only conserve less than one-half of one percent of the total groundwater in storage in the basin per year and is prohibited from overdrafting the basin by its groundwater management plan.
Moreover, rigorous checks are in place to ensure this project is always safe for the environment. In particular, San Bernardino County has enforcement authority in the project’s approved groundwater management plan to halt pumping or implement a myriad of corrective actions if any harm is anticipated or detected.
4 SB 307 is needed to protect critical Mojave Desert springs from drying up.
As confirmed by a 2018 field study of Bonanza Spring—the closest natural spring to the Project—field work conducted during the CEQA process, and independent peer review, this claim is geologically, hydrologically and legally impossible. Not only is Bonanza Spring hydraulically separated from the Project area by a bounding fault, but multiple studies confirm that the spring—which is more than 11 miles away and 1,000 feet above the Project area—is fed by precipitation, not groundwater. The Project’s groundwater management plan, which will be independently enforced by San Bernardino County includes multiple monitoring mechanisms to continually ensure the health of Bonanza Spring.
5 SB 307 is needed to protect national parks, monuments and other public lands.
The Cadiz Water Project will not impact any state or federal lands. The Project will be constructed on private agricultural land and within existing, permitted corridors. Detailed study of the Project further confirm that it will not have any adverse impacts on land surrounding the Project area.
6 SB 307 is designed to slow down a project that was fast-tracked by the Trump Administration.
The Cadiz Water Project has been under development for more than a decade, well before the Trump Administration, and its federal engagement has lasted multiple administrations. This myth pertains to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision made in 2015 that changed more than a hundred years of federal policy encouraging the co-location of infrastructure in existing railroad right of ways. Not only were the BLM employees who issued the decision communicating with wealthy investors who stood to profit from a decision against Cadiz, but their decision was broadly opposed by bipartisan members of Congress, labor and land use experts. In 2017, BLM withdrew the evaluation as a result of the controversy and concerns raised by these stakeholders. By withdrawing the evaluation, the BLM merely put the Project back on its pre-existing review pathway.
7 SB 307, as amended on April 30, fulfills the commitments made to members of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee during the measure’s April 9 hearing.
During the April 9 hearing, Senator Roth and Cadiz CEO Scott Slater committed to making several key amendments to the bill upon questioning by the committee: a front-end review with a focused scope, conducted by an unbiased agency, within a reasonable timeline. Senator Roth pledged to work with Cadiz to give it confidence that the process would be fair. The April 30 amendments fail to fulfill or reflect these commitments.
In particular, SB 307 as amended does NOT focus the scope of the science review to the impacts on the springs, as discussed in committee, but applies to every aspect of the project. This would essentially amount to a new CEQA-type review by the State Lands Commission, an agency with no expertise in groundwater management or projects. If SLC identifies any adverse impacts, it can prohibit the project. There is no remedy, such as recommended adjustments to operations or mitigations, in the event any adverse effect is identified. SLC has up to 24 months to conduct the review, longer than many CEQA and NEPA processes.
In contrast, Cadiz has requested the review be conducted by Department of Water Resources or another water agency within 12 months. The scope of the review would be focused on determining if the transfer of water would “unreasonably affect the fish, wildlife or other beneficial uses dependent upon mountain springs located in the surrounding watersheds”. This amendment would cover all springs in the surrounding watersheds. DWR could recommend/require adjustments to project operations based on its findings. This would allow the statute to focus on resolving a question of science rather than a CEQA do-over, which is a problematic precedent.