I came face to face with sheer hubris at a public hearing in Joshua Tree recently. The chief engineer of Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD), Don Ferons, attempted to explain why a South Orange County water district would be acting as the lead agency for a private company proposing to mine 50,000 acre feet of water annually from an aquifer underlying 2,700 square miles of the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County.

He introduced the project and his agency’s interests as “an opportunity to enhance our reliability of water supplies.” It was as if he was an early American explorer claiming ownership to some newly discovered resource.

At the Joshua Tree Community Center, it was clear that the crowd was incensed. Cut short by an angry desert resident, Ferons gladly turned the presentation over to the proponent’s environmental consultants to present the details of the scheme.

The project was described as one that would be constructed in two phases. The first phase, the extraction operation, consisted of sinking 40-plus wells to facilitate the mining of groundwater that has been percolating into the ground for centuries. This phase would require the construction of a 42-mile underground pipeline to connect the well field with the Colorado River Aqueduct. The second phase, a groundwater banking and storage proposal, was only conceptual in nature and could be implemented at some unknown future date by unknown entities.

I sat there stunned. An Orange County agency was proposing to intentionally overdraft the aquifer of a remote desert community regardless of its potential for recovery or whether there existed a source of water for any potential recharge. The second phase would receive no detailed review.

How could anyone suggest such an irrational plan with such straight faces? They were proposing that SMWD and five other distant partners would eat the seed corn of these desert inhabitants.

Ten years ago, Cadiz Inc. had proposed a similar plan, the difference being that the original plan consisted of both recharge and withdrawal. But even that plan failed to get approval of the Metropolitan Water District.

In round one, the project had undergone a more strenuous environmental impact review, summoning the expertise of federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The result of the original federal oversight was a monitoring and compliance program that at least reduced the risk of destroying the aquifer and the communities dependent upon it. In addition, the previous environmental review had uncovered the existence of chromium-6 in the water, the stuff that made Erin Brockovich a household name.

What a difference a decade makes. This time, eager to avoid federal oversight, Cadiz searched for a way to construct a 42-mile pipeline without triggering the National Environmetal Policy Act. Their answer was to build the pipeline within the right of way belonging to the Arizona and California Railroad, arguing that a water pipeline would serve the railroad with fire suppression and thus a sufficient nexus under the 1875 General Railroad Right of Way Act.

In June 2009, Sen. Diane Feinstein, who had opposed the original project because of its potential impacts to her beloved Mojave National Preserve, sent a letter to Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior, questioning an interpretation granting such broad authority. In February 2011, a belabored opinion by the solicitor general passed the buck back to the Bureau of Land Management, apparently leaving stand a prior grant of approval.

But this meeting was devoid of any sticky details like rights of way determinations or water contamination or the proximity to a national park, national preserve and military base; or the lack of details regarding the use of Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River Aqueduct to wheel water to participants; or the flawed modeling studies that support a hair-brained scheme that describes extraction as conservation.

It was a typical public hearing with its army of consultants pretending to care; proponents dressed inappropriately in business attire, dragged out of their comfort zone with promises of contracts, political contributions, or pizza; and opponents who felt ambushed, having only just learned of a project that would turn their lives on their heads.

I tried to convince myself it was just a movie like “Chinatown,” one I had seen many times with its recurring playbook and cast of characters.

Sitting in the back of the room in Joshua Tree was one such cast member, Kevin Thomas. I recognized Kevin from his association with the ocean desalination industry. He and his company, RBF Consulting, are entwined with an organization called CalDesal, a single-issue lobbying group made up of public officials from public water agencies to promote desalination projects.

While I was thinking about the similarities between Cadiz and the ocean desalination industry, these desert dwellers were thinking about the similarities between Cadiz and Ward Valley, a radioactive waste dump that took them many years to defeat.

But Kevin had left his desalination hat in Orange County. On this day he was wearing his RBF Consulting hat, hired by the SMWD to provide “independent” oversight of the environmental review.

“Independent” is clearly a misnomer. There is virtually no independent thinking in the water industry. The incestuous relationships permeate every project, every water board, every conference, and the result is a streamlined approval process with virtually no transparency, no media attention and no public involvement. But in this case, I couldn’t decide which was more twisted: calling a water mining project conservation or hiring an actual author of the environmental impact report for the “independent” review required by CEQA guidelines!

RBF Consulting has a comfortable relationship with the SMWD. One of the district’s board members has previously held business contracts with RBF. RBF is a frequent sponsor of conferences, meetings and organizations in which board members participate and socialize with RBF employees. RBF employees sit on key boards that oversee state water quality issues. In the early 1990s, RBF’s lavish gift giving resulted in the resignation of several top SMWD executives and one board member.

But why was SMWD, an agency with no regulatory authority San Bernardino County, acting as lead agency for such a project?

From the proponent’s perspective, SMWD was a perfect choice. The general manager of SMWD, John Schatz, is friends with the president of the board of Cadiz Inc., Scott Slater.

Slater is a shareholder in the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He is also legal counsel for the Chino Basin Watermaster. Three Valleys Municipal Water District, another agency that has agreed to buy Cadiz’ water, has a seat on the board of Chino Basin. In addition to serving as general manager of SMWD, Schatz is legal counsel for Chino Basin’s Appropriative Pool Committee. Jurupa Community Service District, another project participant, was a previous employer of John Schatz and is a member of the committee.

Cadiz’ six partners in the project were all plucked from the Slater-Brownstein-Schatz trifecta: SMWD, Golden State Water District, Suburban Water System, California Water Service Co., Jurupa Community Service District and Three Valleys Municipal Water District. Other Chino Basin members have considered participation: Inland Empire Utilities Agency, San Gorgonio Pass Water District, Monte Vista Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, and Cucamonga Water District.

In total, there have been 30 illegal closed-session discussions by these public water agencies under the guise of “real estate” negotiations.

This is not a complete list of the chummy relationships that exist among the participants but provides a sense of the inertia that led to the preposterous proposition of an Orange County water district grabbing water from a sparsely populated desert community.

But SMWD and Cadiz may have underestimated both the intellect and resilience of its opposition. As a veteran of many such battles, even I was moved by the heartfelt appeals of these desert dwellers, who had driven many hours to comment: the man whose voice quavered as he described how four generations of his family have ranched in this parched landscape; or the elderly Native American who had driven 150 miles from Arizona to deliver a three minute plea; or the woman who noted the pattern of behavior of outsiders who take from the desert and give nothing back.

The proponents, mostly outsiders, offered scripted, weak-kneed cheers for their hopes of jobs and personal assertions that the desert environment wouldn’t be harmed. They were clearly outnumbered and departed sheepishly. I overheard one group of men, as they headed for their cars, laughing, while a colleague quipped, “Cadiz is on their own at this point.”

I’m reminded of “The Simpsons” episode where Homer tells Marge, “Marge, it takes two to lie: one to lie, and one to listen.” There is a lesson here for those who decide to listen to these water hucksters: hubris ultimately leads to nemesis.

Debbie Cook is an environmental attorney and activist who opposes the Cadiz project and is also a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

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