By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice
Things are heating up in the fight to stop the misnamed Cadiz Valley Water Conservation Project—cultivated in secret backroom meetings held by corporate water brokers and public water officials—that we are told conserves water that would otherwise evaporate by sucking it from a desert aquifer under the delicate Mojave Desert and transporting it 200 miles to Orange County to water the lawns of future urban sprawl.
The growing allegations of Cadiz-related conflicts, incestuous political relationships, and self-dealing had reached a peak last month when Santa Margarita Water District’s chief champion, John Schatz, abruptly retired from his lucrative job there as General Manager/General Counsel.
Schatz even cancelled his last scheduled regular board meeting after learning that a group of desert residents planned to attend.
And just when the going got rough, Schatz jettisoned before the public could let loose on him at a final public hearing to be held Wednesday, July 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Norman P Community Center, 24932 Veterans Way, Mission Viejo, CA.
But what a mess he left in his dust.
The Cadiz Water Project is the hair-brained idea of Cadiz, Inc. founder and political operative Keith Brackpool.
First proposed in 2000 and rejected in 2002 as a joint effort with the Metropolitan Water District, it was resuscitated by the Santa Margarita Water District’s Board of Directors as a revised scheme. Last year SMWD arrogantly signed on as the “Lead Agency” for the Environmental Impact Report, despite the fact that it has no regulatory authority in San Bernardino County where the proposed project is located.
Both SMWD and San Bernardino County (the latter already approved the project) are now being sued by Tetra Technologies, a salt mining operation that depends on water from the aquifer.
Brackpool’s timing couldn’t be better. The print media has all but abandoned coverage of local government, campaign contributions have corrupted all levels of government, and the public is too busy making ends meet to see that its water rates are about to go sky high.
For years, no one noticed that the Cadiz project was being considered by public agencies all over the region in illegal closed meetings.
The first mention of Cadiz in Santa Margarita’s minutes is a closed session item on March 25, 2009, disguised under the “Real Property” exception to the Brown Act.
Prior to that meeting, the only hint of the new Cadiz comes from a November 2008 compensation report from Director Roger Faubel, who claims a $170 stipend for a meeting with Ken Khachigian, an attorney with Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, and Schreck.
Overlooking the fact that it is illegal for Director Faubel to be compensated for anything other than a bona fide board meeting, why is a public official meeting a potential vendor, one that represents Cadiz, Inc. and stands to gain a substantial sum of money from the project?
Brownstein shareholder Scott Slater is President of Cadiz, Inc. and a colleague of Schatz at the Chino Basin Watermaster where they are both compensated handsomely for legal services outside of their other duties.
The political connections of Cadiz and its board contain ample material for a sequel to the 1974 Roman Polanski film, Chinatown:
- Brownstein partner Steve Farber was Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s campaign finance manager for his Colorado Attorney General race.
- Former Brownstein partner Tom Strickland was Chief of Staff for Salazar until last year.
- The Interior Department’s solicitor gave Cadiz the green light on utilizing the railroad right of way (for water transport), thus avoiding federal oversight and environmental review.
- Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa worked as a consultant to Cadiz for two years before becoming Mayor of Los Angeles. His campaign was heavily financed by Brackpool.
- Former state Assemblyman Richard Katz was another Cadiz consultant who, in 2006, was almost selected as MWD’s chief executive.
- Brackpool lavished campaign funds on San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt (whose district encompasses Cadiz) and former Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- Schwarzenegger’s former Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy was also on the Cadiz payroll prior to her stint in government.
- Recently it was brought to light that the White House environmental office is run by Nancy Sutley, a former adviser to Governor Davis and deputy to Mayor Villaraigosa.
The intricate web of connections related to the Cadiz Water Project is disconcerting at the very least. With seemingly no end to political and financial influence, how does the average citizen compete?
The answer is, with an old fashioned show of grassroots political force.
If you care about safeguarding California’s precious resources, about transparency in government, about the essence of democracy, then attend Wednesday’s meeting.
It’s time for this project to evaporate forever.
Environmental attorney Debbie Cook is a former Huntington Beach City Council member and two-term mayor of that city. Cook monitors the Cadiz project and transparency issues at local water districts.
Related stories in the Surf City Voice: Opposition to Santa Margarita Water District’s Plan to Suck Desert Water Grows from the Desert to the Sea; ‘Superman’ Water Manager Slams Surf City Voice on Journalism Ethics.