February 27, 2012

Complaint lodged against Cadiz project

Needles Desert Star

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY - Independent environmentalist Ruth Musser-Lopez of Needles recently reported she has lodged a complaint in regards to the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project with San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael A. Ramos' Public Integrity Unit and the California Attorney General.

She alleges the conduct of the Santa Margarita Water District is in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, better known as the open meeting law. In her complaint, she alleges the water district threatens to violate the Brown Act and the constitutional rights of San Bernardino County citizens by holding a ruse California Environmental Quality Act hearing in Joshua Tree located outside of the district's jurisdiction.

The project would extract 50,000 to 75,000 acre feet of the east Mojave groundwater in San Bernardino County. It would be diverted west to Orange County via the Colorado River aqueduct. A potential customer for the water is the Santa Margarita Water District. Musser-Lopez' complaint alleges the district wrongfully identified itself as the “lead agency” on the CEQA review for the project. Musser-Lopez asserts San Bernardino County citizens didn't elect Santa Margarita Water District officials nor have a say in the formation of the Orange County District. By representing themselves as having authority over CEQA documents pertaining to projects within the jurisdictional limits of San Bernardino County, Orange County water district is engaging in a violation of the Brown Act, according to Musser-Lopez' complaint.

Her complaint also explores how SMWD and its board of directors, along with their attorneys, acted willfully, purporting to be authorized to schedule Draft Environmental Impact Review hearings at locations not easily accessible to the east Mojave communities that will be most affected by the project. By holding the meetings in Joshua Tree, Calif., east Mojave citizens would need to drive 300 miles round trip, creating an undue hardship and an injustice to the disabled and elderly, according to Musser-Lopez.

She claims the meetings are discriminatory and inflict undue hardship, handicaps and discourage the expression of the citizens to participate by oral statements and comments and violate government codes and certain protections and prohibitions contained in section 202 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Musser-Lopez claims all of these allegations have caused irreparable harm to her and San Bernardino County citizens. “We can't control SMWD because we didn't create it and they don't belong here,” she said in a prepared statement.

Jeff Williams, board president for the Needles Chamber of Commerce, said the board opted to formally support the project because of what it could mean economically for Needles. It could translate to several jobs and certainly means Cadiz project workers would come into town for food and lodging - both of which would help generate revenue for the city.

Courtney Degener, of Cadiz Inc., said she hasn't seen the complaint but disagrees with all the allegations being made in a press release about Musser-Lopez' action. She claims Cadiz has gone through the proper processes and has abided by all the California Environmental Quality Act requirements.

She said Cadiz has followed all CEQA laws including selection of the lead agency and not selecting San Bernardino County as that lead agency. Cadiz will also work with San Bernardino County through all the permitting processes and keep them in the loop about the project, Degener said.

Regarding meeting places, Degener said it's difficult to select a meeting location anywhere in these areas because it's a long drive for anyone coming or going. “It's just the vastness of the area,” she said.

While there aren't any meetings or open houses planned for the Needles area, Cadiz is encouraging all residents to submit any comments or concerns, Degener said. The CEQA process ensures all written comments are given as much consideration as comments made at meetings, she continued. The comment portion of the process has been extended to March 14.

Written comments, including a return address and contact name, may be sent: c/o Tom Barnes, ESA, 626 Wilshire Boulevard, Ste. 100, Los Angeles, CA 90017; telephone 213-599-4300, Fax: 213-599-4301, or by email to: cadizproject@esassoc.com