Trump Is Backing a Company That Wants to Drain Water from the Mojave Desert


This story is over 5 years old.

Trump Is Backing a Company That Wants to Drain Water from the Mojave Desert

This is like Mad Max in real life.

One of the projects in President Trump's infrastructure proposal is resurrecting a water pipeline that environmentalists say threatens the Mojave Desert. The pay off? Helping out a politically-connected company with deep ties to the Republican party.

In late January, the Trump transition team gave the National Governors Association, the bipartisan organization of state governors, a list of 50 "high priority" infrastructure projects for potential federal investment. It included a pipeline, first proposed over a decade ago, to pump water from an aquifer in the Mojave Desert, in California and southern Nevada, to consumers in the Los Angeles metro area.


Cadiz Inc., the private water company that owns the patch of desert and would build the pipeline, has a wide network of connections in Washington, especially among the GOP. Thanks to expectations that the pipeline will finally get the government approval for the pipeline that the company has long craved, Cadiz's stock price doubled between the election and early February.

In the early 2000s, the US Geological Survey found that the project could harm the desert environment by drawing water faster than the aquifer naturally refills. That would cause the ground above it to sink and become unstable and possibly contaminate the remaining water as soil fills in the partially empty aquifer.

Mojave Desert. Image: Google Earth

Cadiz concluded that it would have to sidestep the federal government, but the pipeline would cross federal land to get from the aquifer to consumers. Cadiz tried to find a loophole by building its pipeline along a railroad right-of-way, which it argued qualified it for an exemption from federal environmental review designed for water pipelines meant to serve railways. In 2015, the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of Interior, rejected that argument.

Now there is a new, less environmentally-friendly administration in Washington, and Cadiz is hoping the BLM decision will be reversed under Trump. If it is, Cadiz would pump some 814 billion gallons out of the Mojave Desert's groundwater, worth an estimated $2.4 billion over 50 years. If the USGS's projection about the rate of refill is right—and Cadiz's, which finds that it would be quickly replenished naturally, is wrong—then the land could collapse and connected water sources could dry up, harming plants and animals.


But, regardless of the environmental impact, the project would be a financial boon to the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where Cadiz CEO Scott Slater is a partner. David Bernhardt, who served as Interior Department solicitor under George W. Bush, is chair of Brownstein Hyatt's natural resources department. Bernhardt served on Trump's Interior transition team—a selection that worried some Californians familiar with his record—and he may receive a high-level Interior Department appointment himself. If the Cadiz project is completed, Brownstein Hyatt will earn 200,000 shares of company stock. That's currently worth about $3 million.

Both Cadiz and Brownstein Hyatt are well-connected political players. Brownstein Hyatt brought in more than $25 million last year from lobbying for a wide array of major corporations such as Citigroup and BlueCross/BlueShield. They also represent a large open-pit copper mine in Arizona that environmentalists say threatens endangered species. The firm's website dispenses with any subtlety by proudly boasting on its homepage that its "political connections deliver results." In the 2016 cycle, the firm's PAC gave $265,500 to congressional candidates.

"The idea that there is a surplus supply of water in the desert—it's just absurd on the face of it."

Brownstein Hyatt gives to candidates in both parties, but it leans Republican. Bernhardt personally gave $2,700 to Trump and $500 to then-Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), who is now Interior Secretary, but only $250 to HIllary Clinton. In what a cynic might call a transparent effort to curry favor with the next administration, Slater personally gave $1,000 each to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Since Cadiz hired Slater as CEO in 2011, it has spent $3.4 million on federal lobbying.


Local environmental activists are alarmed by the prospect of the pipeline being built. "The potential impacts are huge," says Connor Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance. "The idea that there is a surplus supply of water in the desert—especially now that we've been through five years of extreme drought in the whole state, and in the desert it's already dry—it's just absurd on the face of it."

Ranchers and others are also worried by risks like loss of groundwater and soil collapse. For these reasons, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) strongly opposes the project.

Cadiz says these concerns are unfounded. Company spokeswoman Courtney Degener wrote in an email to Motherboard that there would be "no harm whatsoever to the environment, or the aquifer." Degener noted the local water district's favorable environmental impact review, which environmentalists sued unsuccessfully to overturn.

"None of the water we are going to take fell on the Earth in the last 100 years," Slater told The Guardian in January. "This is millennial water." This is true. But if it takes millennia to fill up the aquifer, then perhaps it's risky to pump out so much of it so quickly.

Many of the project's critics are as motivated by ethical concerns as environmental ones. Whether the USGS or the Santa Margarita Water District is right about the pipeline's likely impact, the permitting decision should be made by disinterested bureaucrats without regard to politics.


"How are the Trump infrastructure projects going to be prioritized?" asks Neil Gupta, a researcher Corporate Accountability International, a human rights and environmental advocacy organization. "Is it going to be the needs of the people or is it going to be political connections?"

For anyone worried that Trump will favor corporations over the public interest, Slater, Cadiz, and Brownstein Hyatt are archetypal villains. Slater views water as a commodity and he is pleased to see its value increase as human-caused climate change leads to droughts in California. "This is the United States of America and we have private property here," Slater said in his interview with The Guardian.

Read More: Trump's $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill Would Barely Cover America's Clean Water Needs

"I can sell land to anybody. Why would I treat water any differently?" Slater has represented private water companies for decades and Brownstein Hyatt also represents other private water corporations like Nestle Waters North America.

In the past, water privatization has led to consumers being charged more for worse service and even to dangerously unsafe public drinking water. And California environmental activists argue that water shortages could still be addressed through more responsible conservation practices, rather than by meddling with a sensitive ecosystem.

But responsible conservation practices seem to be of no interest to the Trump administration.