Santa Margarita Water District Sued Over its Lead Role in Mojave Groundwater Project

Environmental groups are suing Orange County's second largest retail water district over plans to pump water Mojave Desert groundwater. Santa Margarita Water District, which serves more than 155,000 residents and businesses in Mission Viejo, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch, Talega and its home base of Rancho Santa Margarita, and San Bernardino County are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Santa Margarita Water not only signed on as a future buyer of the water from the $225 million Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, which plans to pump 16 billion gallons of groundwater per year from ancient aquifers, but as the lead in the environmental review of the operation.

In the suit filed Friday, the Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club San Gorgonio chapter and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society contend San Bernardino County should have led the environmental survey, which they want overturned, re-done and led in the future by the county.

The project "is in San Bernardino County, that's where all the impacts are going to be; they should be in charge, not some Orange County water agency," Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, tells the Riverside Press Enterprise.

The environmentalists fear the project will harm the threatened desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and Mojave National Preserve, which contains some of the world's oldest Joshua trees.

San Bernardino County officials claim Santa Margarita applied to become the lead before the county could, and that the state does not reverse such designations. But lawyers for the environmentalists claim the California Environmental Quality Act allows such a dispute to be submitted to the state Office of Planning and Research for a decision.
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