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OAKLAND, Calif. Sept. 28, 2017— The Center for Biological Diversity filed public records requests today for documents that could explain an abrupt about-face by the Trump administration to allow an enormous groundwater-mining scheme in California to move forward without environmental review.
Under the direction of deputy secretary David Bernhardt, the Interior Department’s solicitor earlier this month reversed two key Obama administration decisions that required environmental review for an unrelated use of a railroad right-of-way. The new legal analysis attempts to pave the way for Cadiz Inc. to pump 16 billion gallons a year from a fragile desert aquifer in Mojave Trails National Monument.
Bernhardt was a former lobbyist for Cadiz and his former employer, the Washington-based law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, continues to represent the developer.
“The public has a right to know who orchestrated the Trump administration’s complete reversal on this disastrous project,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center. “While Cadiz and its shareholders stand to gain millions, this massive water grab would dry up life-giving springs that wildlife depend on and decimate public lands belonging to all of us.”
Under the Obama administration, the Interior Department determined that Cadiz required federal approval to cross public lands using an old railroad right-of-way. On Sept. 1 the solicitor overturned that decision, saying anyone with an 1875 railroad right-of-way can use it without any federal oversight, even if the use has nothing to do with railroads.
The Center’s Freedom of Information Act request seeks all records and communications from the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management related to Interior’s Sept. 1 decision. These requests follow earlier requests that have been largely ignored.
The Cadiz water-mining project would send Mojave groundwater to Southern California to fuel sprawl development. It would drain the life-giving springs in the Mojave National Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument, killing vegetation and destroying key habitat for a host of desert wildlife, including desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, Mojave fringe-toed lizards and kit foxes.
Hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey determined that the Cadiz project is unsustainable and that the company’s privately funded study vastly overstates the aquifer’s recharge rate.
“We want to see how the solicitor’s opinion came about,” Belenky said. “Was there pressure from Bernhardt and others in the Trump administration to grease the skids for the Cadiz project? From the outside, it certainly looks possible.”