Cadiz Inc. Chief Executive Scott Slater

Cadiz Inc. Chief Executive Scott Slater

A federal judge ruled that an exemption from environmental review, granted to Cadiz Inc.'s desert water development project, was invalid.

U.S. District Court Judge George Wu ruled June 21 that the federal Bureau of Land Management failed to provide sufficient evidence for its 2017 decision to reverse its own 2015 decision requiring environmental review for the pipeline. The judge ordered BLM to reconsider the issue, potentially adding further delay to the company's decades-long attempt to secure final approval for the project.

Downtown Los Angeles-based Cadiz plans to build a 43-mile pipeline along railroad right-of-way to transport water from its aquifer in the Mojave Desert to the Colorado River Aqueduct that is owned and operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

A full environmental review of the pipeline project would require at least a year for Cadiz to prepare the documentation. It could also potentially open the water project up to another round of litigation.

Cadiz had argued that under an obscure 1873 law, it had the right to build the pipeline within the railroad right-of-way without further environmental review, as long as water from the pipeline served a rail-related use. Cadiz said some of the water would be used by a third party to operate a steam-powered train.

In late 2015, the Bureau of Land Management under the administration of then-President Barack Obama, rejected Cadiz’ argument and ordered a full environmental review of the pipeline.

But in 2017, under the current administration of President Donald Trump, the bureau abruptly reversed itself and granted the exemption from environmental review. The move followed the Trump administration’s placement of the project on an infrastructure priority list.

A coalition of environmental groups opposed to the Cadiz project filed suit in federal court in Washington D.C., seeking to overturn the bureau’s decision. An attorney for that coalition issued a statement hailing Judge Wu’s decision.

“The court saw right through the Trump administration’s attempt to shoehorn the massive Cadiz pipeline into a railroad easement through Mojave Trails National Monument,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice who represented the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety.

Cadiz Chief Executive Scott Slater said in a statement issued after the ruling that the company regards this as a procedural matter. “Although the judge believed that BLM applied the correct legal standard, the Judge sent the letter back to BLM to provide more detailed explanation concerning the change in position," Slater said in the statement. He added, "We are confident that BLM will swiftly prepare an amended letter completely compliant with the Court’s direction.”

Education, energy, engineering/construction and infrastructure reporter Howard Fine can be reached at hfine@labusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @howardafine.

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