The Cadiz Water Project: Mojave Water Grab Déjà Vu

In late 2002, Los Angeles's Metropolitan Water District rejected what the Sacramento Bee called “one of the loonier ideas Southern California has ever come up with” — a plan to mine vast quantities of water from under dry lakebeds in the Mojave desert, near the small town of Cadiz in eastern San Bernardino County, California.  

The Cadiz project threatens to dry up the area's few natural desert springs and completely dehydrate the lakebeds, stealing habitat from threatened and endangered species — including the desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, Mojave fringe-toed lizard and desert kit fox. The Cadiz project also deprives San Bernardino County of a rare and precious resource: desert groundwater. The project exploits weaknesses in California's groundwater law that lets land speculators buy a piece of land and make windfall profits from pumping out the entire aquifer underneath — at tremendous cost to sensitive wildlife, habitat and the Mojave National Preserve.

The plan of the original “Cadiz project” was to send the desert groundwater to Los Angeles and replace it with diverted water from the Colorado River. The Bee noted the project “seemed to have it all. Everything, that is, except the water.” Indeed, the project was rejected because the replacement supplies were speculative at best — the water grab would rob citizens of San Bernardino County and the state of nearly 2 million acre-feet of water that belongs to the people. It was wise of the water district to reject the project, and Cadiz was declared dead — until now.


Ten years later, the water grab is back, now re-jiggered to ignore the impacts from injecting Colorado River water into the Mojave. In fact, the “new” Cadiz project doesn't even pretend to replace all the water, but claims that “new” science shows that the water would otherwise be lost to evaporation — despite numerous expert reports to the contrary from scientists and the federal government. 


San Bernardino County has a formidable local groundwater ordinance, which until recently could have at least allowed the county to monitor and enforce against harm to its aquifer. Under the local law, the county should be subjecting Cadiz to a rigorous permitting process; instead, it recently voted to do exactly the opposite and exempt the project. Under the exemption, the county must wait 10 years to measure harm to the aquifer and must typically go through arbitration before it can tell Cadiz to stop the harm. Environmental review for the project should also have resided with San Bernardino County, but is being handled by a Southern Orange County water district nearly 200 miles away from the project itself, leaving the actual citizens of San Bernardino County powerless to stop the water grab. Cadiz has called the exemption "enforcement" and the water mining “conservation” — we call it bad science and bad law.


The Center joined a broad coalition of groups to stop the Cadiz déj vu and filed a legal challenge to the project's environmental impacts. After the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County certified the highly flawed “environmental impact report” in 2012, we were left with no alternative but to challenge the approval in court.

Our lawsuit challenges the environmental review of the Cadiz project based on its numerous fatal flaws, including:

  • An inadequate analysis of impacts on water quality, air quality and wildlife.
  • Environmental review managed by wrong lead agency.
  • An inaccurate project description claiming that its goal is to “conserve” water.
  • Bad science that grossly exaggerates “recharge” to the aquifer.
We finally won the fight in 2019, when a federal court ruled that that the Trump administration violated the law when it greenlighted plans to construct the pipeline through Mojave Trails National Monument and other public land in Southern California.
Mojave Desert photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/theschmallfella