By Elliot Spagat
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A California appeals court on Tuesday upheld plans for a large transfer of Mojave Desert groundwater to homes and businesses in Southern California.
The ruling by a three-judge panel in Santa Ana moves urban districts a step closer to getting up to 75,000 acre feet of desert groundwater a year from the Cadiz and Fenner valleys in San Bernardino County — enough to supply about 150,000 homes. The water will be pumped with about 34 new wells and sent on a 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River aqueduct, which serves 19 million people in Southern California.
In two separate rulings, California's 4th District Court of Appeals said the project didn't violate a San Bernardino County ordinance to protect desert groundwater and that it adhered to state law for environmental reviews.
It was a setback for environmental groups that view the water transfer as unwelcome incentive for suburban sprawl in a parched region and a threat to desert wildlife, including tortoises and bighorn sheep.
Cadiz Inc., based in Los Angeles, plans to ship an average of 50,000 acre feet a year for 50 years and up to 75,000 acre feet a year to urban agencies led by the Santa Margarita Water District, which serves homes and businesses in southern Orange County.
"The ruling removes legal uncertainties as we proceed with planning and facility design," the Santa Margarita Water District said in a statement.
Construction has yet to begin on the project, which was approved by San Bernardino County in 2012.
"We are extremely grateful for the appellate court opinion and its validation of the environmental review and approval of the water project," said Cadiz's CEO Scott Slater.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, and Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc., whose Mojave Desert salt mine would be hurt by the transfer, sued in Orange County Superior Court to block the project.
"Projects like this give momentum to development that we don't need," said Aruna Prabhala, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which was reviewing the decision and was undecided on whether to appeal.