Tuesday marks a critical milestone in an intense, highly contentious process to partially drain a Mojave Desert aquifer system for the water needs of suburban Southern California.

The Santa Margarita Water District board will decide whether to give a major environmental green-light to the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, which proposes to pump 815 billion gallons of water from the eastern San Bernardino County desert over the course of a half century.

The effort, however, has been fraught with allegations by activists that public officials at Santa Margarita have allowed the Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. to significantly downplay the impacts. The two are aligned to push the project forward, critics claim.

Not so, say Cadiz and Santa Margarita, who insist that the review process has been open and transparent to the public. They also strongly dispute claims that they’ve engaged in behind-closed-doors collusion.

The project is controversial because it could destroy a major groundwater source, according to the U.S. National Park Service and environmental groups. Cadiz and the Santa Margarita Water District insist that the project is environmentally sustainable, citing studies showing minimal effects on desert habitats.

The plan is to pump water from Cadiz’s land in eastern San Bernardino County and ship it across the desert to water providers in the Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside county areas, including Santa Margarita. It would supply enough water for about 100,000 homes.

The project has attracted significant opposition from environmentalists and Mojave residents, who worry about long-term effects on the aquifer and its surroundings. Cadiz also has equally vigorous supporters in the business community, who say it will provide a reliable water supply for import-dependent communities and boost local economies.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA, Santa Margarita officials are required to conduct a thorough and objective review of the project’s environmental impact. The environmental impact report or EIR would serve as the official determination of Cadiz’s effects on the desert.

During a hearing on the EIR last week, which 400 people attended and more than 100 spoke, Cadiz President Scott Slater described the process as an “open, public, transparent review.”

However, environmentalists say that there is much about the relationship between Santa Margarita and Cadiz that the public does not know about. Specifically, they question ties the district’s former general manager, John Schatz, has had with the company. Schatz appeared in a promotional video for Cadiz last summer.

Schatz said in the video: “What we need to do to get past the boom and bust cycle is to develop a local supply resource like Cadiz. The Cadiz project is environmentally sustainable.”

Public officials and EIR authors need to maintain their independence from developers and conduct their business in the public eye, said Michael Stamp, a land use attorney.

Activists say Santa Margarita’s board never discussed the Cadiz project in public before authorizing negotiations, leading Terry Francke, general counsel for First Amendment advocacy group Californians Aware and Voice of OC’s open-government consultant, to question whether officials held illegal conversations outside public view. State law requires nearly all policy discussions by water boards to be held in public.

The district disputes Francke’s stance, asserting that the board neither held policy discussions on Cadiz nor received a presentation on the project before approving the negotiations.

Activists also claim the district cancelled its regular meeting last month to avoid hearing their concerns.

About two dozen people had planned to speak about Cadiz, organizers said. When they told the district a week in advance about the plans, Santa Margarita responded that it might set aside the entire meeting for public comments, according to Seth Shteir, a desert field representative with the National Parks Conservation Association.

But a few days later, Santa Margarita announced that the June 27 meeting was cancelled and its topics postponed. It was the first time in recent years that a regular board meeting was cancelled, records show.

Miller, the district spokeswoman, said it was cancelled “because we had no items to be heard on the agenda.”

Shteir says that explanation doesn’t add up.

In his conversation with Schatz just days before the cancellation, “there was never discussion of meeting cancellation or ‘we don’t have any agenda items,’ ” said Shteir. “There was none of that talk. To the contrary, he was indicating that the whole meeting would be set aside for public comments.

“We think that the process definitely needs to be transparent and public, and with the cancellation of that meeting I was quite disappointed,” Shteir said. “It really shows an undermining of the public process.”

Miller said she wasn’t aware of that conversation and added that the district encourages public participation at board meetings. Phone messages to Schatz were not returned.

A final decision on approving the Cadiz EIR is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Norman P. Murray Community and Senior Center in Mission Viejo.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/nicholasgerda.

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