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California

Court throws out federal approval of Cadiz water pipeline

A federal judge’s ruling is a blow to Cadiz Inc.'s decades-long effort to pump desert groundwater and sell it to urban Southern California.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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A federal judge has struck down Trump administration decisions that cleared the way for Cadiz Inc. to build a water pipeline across public land in the California desert.

The ruling is a blow to the company’s decades-long effort to pump groundwater from beneath its desert property 200 miles east of Los Angeles and sell it to urban Southern California.

Cadiz wants to use an existing railroad right of way across federal land to pipe supplies from its proposed well field to the Colorado River Aqueduct.

In 2015, during the Obama administration, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said Cadiz couldn’t use the right of way and would therefore have to obtain federal permission to run the proposed pipeline across surrounding federal land.

That would trigger a lengthy environmental review that could impose new restrictions on the project, which is fiercely opposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and desert conservationists.

After President Trump took office, a BLM official revoked legal guidances that underpinned the agency’s 2015 decision. The BLM subsequently gave Cadiz the green light to use the right of way.

Environmental groups challenged the agency’s about-face in court, winning a favorable ruling from U.S. District Judge George Wu.

In a decision released Friday, Wu faulted the BLM’s actions on two key counts.

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The judge, who sits in the Central District of California, rejected the BLM’s argument that under 1875 railroad law, any use could be approved along a federal right of way as long as it did not interfere with the railroad. Courts have consistently found that right-of-way uses should further railroad purposes, Wu wrote.

He also found that the BLM had failed to legally justify its reversal: In 2015, the agency said the water pipeline would not further a railroad purpose and therefore couldn’t run along the right of way. Two years later, it concluded the opposite.

“The Court would hold that the BLM had the duty to provide a reasoned explanation for why it disregarded certain facts from the 2015 Determination in its conclusion that the component parts of the Cadiz Pipeline furthered railroad purposes. Because the 2017 Determination provided no explanation for reversal, the Court would find it arbitrary and capricious,” the ruling says.

The BLM did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Cadiz CEO Scott Slater called Wu’s decision a procedural matter that the BLM could easily remedy. “While the Company thinks that the record fully supported the BLM’s 2017 findings ‘as is’, we are confident that BLM will swiftly prepare an amended letter responsive to the remand and completely compliant with the Court’s direction,” he said in a statement.

Gregory Loarie, an Earthjustice staff attorney who represented two plaintiffs, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety, said Wu’s ruling was the latest in a series of decisions that courts across the country have issued against Trump administration reversals of Obama administration rules and policies.

Desert advocates and the National Park Service have expressed concerns that Cadiz’s groundwater pumping would harm the fragile desert ecosystem and slow the flow of springs vital to wildlife in the nearby Mojave National Preserve.

“Today’s ruling reverses the illegal favoritism demonstrated by the Trump administration to Cadiz Inc.,” said David Lamfrom, California desert and wildlife director for the National Parks Conservation Assn., one of the plaintiffs.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Twitter: @boxall