A mining company is alleging that San Bernardino County shirked state and local environmental laws when it approved an agreement on a proposed pipeline to divert groundwater from the eastern Mojave Desert to the Colorado River Aqueduct.

Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc. is seeking a court order prohibiting the county, the Santa Margarita Water District, Delaware-based Cadiz Inc. and the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Co. from acting on their agreement until the environmental issues in question are addressed. The Fenner Valley Mutual Water Co. is a nonprofit established by Cadiz Inc. to be the project operator.

The Board of Supervisors approved the agreement, or memorandum of understanding (MOU), with the companies on May 1 after a nearly four-hour public hearing. It would establish a framework for development of a groundwater management plan and county oversight of the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project.

Cadiz Inc. which has a Los Angeles office, and the Santa Margarita Water District, located in Rancho Santa Margarita in south Orange County, propose to build a 43-mile pipeline that would divert surplus groundwater from the Fenner Valley, about 40 miles northeast of Twentynine Palms and south of the Mojave National Preserve, to the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The stored groundwater would then be sold to other water agencies for municipal and industrial use.

Tetra alleges in its lawsuit, filed May 25 in San Bernardino Superior Court, that the county erroneously ceded lead agency status on the project to the Santa Margarita Water District and determined that approval of the MOU was not subject to an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

"In short, the entire CEQA process was reduced to a sham exercise that significantly misled the public," according to the lawsuit.

County Land Use Services Director Christine Kelly noted in a staff report to the Board of Supervisors at the time of the public hearing that approval of the Cadiz project itself was predicated upon final CEQA review.

"The county's approval of the MOU therefore does not constitute an approval of the project, and is not a decision subject to CEQA," Kelly said in her staff report.

The county and its partners in the project deny any wrongdoing.

"The plaintiff is wrong in contending the MOU violates the (county) ordinance and CEQA," county spokesman David Wert said, declining further comment due to the pending litigation.

Santa Margarita Water District spokeswoman Michele Miller also declined to comment due to pending litigation, but did say the district disagrees with Tetra's claim.

"The district defends the actions taken on the Memorandum of Understanding and the proposed Groundwater Monitoring, Management and Mitigation Plan," Miller said in a statement Thursday.

Cadiz Inc. owns roughly 45,000 acres of land in the Fenner Valley, most of which overlies the Fenner Valley aquifer and the Bristol and Cadiz dry lake beds.

Cadiz and the Santa Margarita Water District are proposing to pump 50,000 to 75,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from the aquifer during the project's 50-year projected life span. The rate of recharge of the aquifer system, however, is estimated to be at most 32,000 acre-feet a year, according to the lawsuit.

That would dry up the aquifer and shutter Tetra's mining operations in the Mojave Desert, the lawsuit alleges.

Tetra operates brine mining facilities at the Bristol and Cadiz dry lake beds and depends on the natural groundwater flow to dissolve underground calcium and sodium salts, which are then used in the manufacture of products in the vegetable growing, canning, oil and gas industries.

"Without the migration of groundwater to the dry lakes, the continued viability of Tetra's mining operations would be imminently threatened," according to the lawsuit.

Cadiz and the Santa Margarita Water District claim their proposed project would have no adverse impacts, and that the groundwater they intend to pump is surplus and would be lost to evaporation if not harnessed and diverted for commercial use. 

Tetra alleges that the Santa Margarita Water District is downplaying the potential negative impacts of the project, and that the county ceding lead agency status to the district is a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, said Robert Bower, an attorney representing Tetra in the case.

"They're trying to push this thing under the radar before anyone notices, and they're all going to be fatter for it," Bower said.

The project has also created a stir among environmentalists.

"In our opinion, it's a gamble with our natural resources. The project is unsustainable in many ways," said Seth Shteir, California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Shteir has been leading the charge in opposing the project, which has been in the works for more than 15 years.

He said the Fenner Valley aquifer would not be able to recharge if Cadiz and Santa Margarita pump groundwater at the rate they are proposing over 50 years.

"We're concerned about how that might impact federal lands like the Mojave National Preserve, air quality and water reserves," Shteir said.

The National Parks Service pointed out in a letter to the water district that there isn't enough research available to prove the project wouldn't adversely affect springs in the Mojave National Preserve, Shteir said.

"Our position is we're opposed to any project that would damage park resources," Shteir said.


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