Why science, not money, should matter on June 5th

Posted on | May 29, 2018 | No Comments


California’s June 5 gubernatorial primary stands to be a crucial turning point in the more than two-decade-old bid by by Cadiz, Inc to mine Mojave Desert groundwater for sale to coastal Southern California cities. This is less an endorsement of people who appear to be adequate candidates – Delaine Eastin, John Chiang or Gavin Newsom – than a warning.  To this water-watcher’s eyes, a Villaraigosa win would be a staggering setback for unbiased government science in setting a course for California water policy. 

It’s best to dispense up front with the well-worn objections by Cadiz and its apparatchiks that I am not objective. That ship sailed 20 years ago. The project first came across my threshold soon after I moved to Los Angeles from London in 1998. An acquaintance, a former broker from the now-defunct bank Hill Samuel, came to call at the suggestion of a mutual friend who believed that it was all some big mistake that he had years earlier signed me up without permission for an exotic (and now discredited) financial product called an “endowment mortgage.” He was no longer with the bank, he said, but working for an English speculator named Keith Brackpool who, as he told it, had found a new source of water for Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert. That Mulholland and every water engineer since him had missed it, he declared in his high English accent, was because, “Americans are too stupid to know there’s an underground ocean beneath their feet.”

That was the last I saw of that mortgage broker, but only the begining of Cadiz, which would soon become the water world’s answer to Flubber. The harder you hit it, the higher it bounced. Along for the ride, bounce for bounce, was Mr Villaraigosa.

Glory proved elusive when the former assemblyman returned to Los Angeles already an established beneficiary of Cadiz donations. In 2001, even flood irrigation by Cadiz dollars failed to make him mayor of the second largest city in the US. To wait out his wilderness years, Cadiz hired Mr Villaraigosa as a lobbyist. Concurrently, warned by federal hydrologists about Cadiz’s gross overestimates of sustainable yield estimates, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declined to partner in mining Mr Brackpool’s “underground ocean.” In a subsequent setback to Mr Brackpool’s venture, in 2003 Gray Davis, a beneficiary of Cadiz largesse estimated by the Los Angeles Times at more than $300K, was recalled.

Yet, by 2005, Cadiz interests were again richly represented across California. Mr Villaraigosa was in the Mayor’s office, which he soon used to lobby (unsuccessfully) to make Richard Katz, another former assemblyman and Cadiz lobbyist, head of Metropolitan. Back in Sacramento, Gray Davis was gone but Cadiz wasn’t.  In 2005, a new chief of staff joined Governor Schwarzenegger’s office fresh from the Cadiz payroll. You won’t find any official records of the governor’s endorsements of Cadiz, but one somehow ended up with Cadiz, which it deployed in a press release that set their stock soaring.

But back to Mayor Villaraigosa. If he couldn’t install a former Cadiz lobbyist as head of Metropolitan, he could at the very least name the head of the City of LA’s water department. Herein lies one of his most spectacular failures. By 2010, general managers at the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power had about the same job expectancy as Trump cabinet members. At least one of them, the impeccably credentialed S. David Freeman, declined to pursue a proposed water banking deal with Cadiz. 

Meanwhile, Cadiz money was running all over the map. Over in San Bernardino County, it was going to supervisors, who then waived previous opposition to the project and even the county groundwater ordinance for the project site. As a revived project was put through a new state environmental review led an Orange County water agency (aligned with the new Cadiz CEO), a new strategy emerged. This centered on shutting out the very federal hydrogeologists whose scrutiny had been so damning when Cadiz attempted the Metropolitan partnership. California, Cadiz argued, could rely on sustainable yield estimates by its own company hydrologists this time.

When the Obama administration didn’t accept Cadiz’s argument that running a water project pipeline on a railway easement immunized the project against independent federal hydrogeological review, it briefly looked as if a rigorous scientific approach had won. 

Then came Trump. Out went climate change. Out went science. In came the lobbyists, not least of whom included Cadiz lobbyist and associate of Cadiz’s CEO, who was swiftly appointed Deputy Interior Secretary. The need for federal scientific review was waived.

Suddenly it looked as if the only thing standing between the project being built was new California legislation designed to protect desert groundwater. AB1000 was a good try but long-time Cadiz and Villaraigosa allies, the lobbyist Fabian Nunez and state senator Kevin deLeon, then did exactly what Cadiz money might expect be done. They McConnelled the bill in spite of support from Governor Brown.

How much has Mr Villaraigosa’s latest campaign received from Cadiz? The Secretary of State’s website shows a launch-time pair of donations totaling $56,400.00. Between the company, its subsidiaries, lobbyists, pipe fitters etc, it’s a safe bet that there is a lot more financial recharge flowing in from California’s steep valleys of special interests.

Why do what reporters are urged never to do and take a political stand on an election? Because these are not normal times. It’s a bright red flag that Cadiz needed San Bernardino supervisors to waive groundwater regulations. The sheer pains the company has gone to in order to shut out review by the US Geological Survey are more like a five alarm fire. The USGS exists expressly to study federal lands in cooperation with states and localities to assist sustainable management. Its scientists are the un-rivaled authorities on American desert hydrology.  Any responsible agency would insist upon their being brought in to to protect everyone involved, from Cadiz shareholders, to desert residents, to listed public lands, to consumers of water, to the Orange County water agency that will be on the line to pay for Cadiz water and any project damage mitigation. That Mr Villaraigosa would tip the scale away from public safety and unbiased science toward profit for his friends and benefactors should disqualify him to lead California.

For background: KCET’s “Forget it Jake, it’s Cadiz” 

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