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CAMPAIGN 2001

Firm That Seeks Water Deal Gives Heavily to Villaraigosa

Contribution: Cadiz Inc. hopes to operate a $150-million storage project. The next mayor will appoint water board members.

May 30, 2001|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Santa Monica company pushing a controversial project to store Colorado River water underground in the eastern Mojave Desert for use in drought years has been making large campaign contributions to Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

If elected mayor, Villaraigosa would appoint five commissioners to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which relies primarily on water from the Owens Valley but buys Colorado River water as well. In addition, the next mayor--Villaraigosa or City Atty. James K. Hahn--will appoint four members of the Metropolitan Water District board, the entity that controls Southern California's share of Colorado River water. Those four members constitute 20% of the board's votes.

Cadiz Inc., its chief executive Keith Brackpool, some of its senior executives and directors have given almost $36,000 to Villaraigosa's campaign since the former lawmaker entered the mayor's race. Brackpool, a major backer of Gov. Gray Davis, also has hosted fund-raisers for Villaraigosa.

In addition, the politically well-connected company gave $50,000 to the state Democratic Party two weeks before the April 10 city election and has pledged another $50,000 to the party before the Tuesday runoff, according to a confidential document obtained by The Times. The state party is mounting a massive phone and mail program to elect Villaraigosa to the city's highest office.

While speaker of the Assembly, Villaraigosa received $65,000 in campaign contributions from Cadiz, a publicly traded company that describes itself as a "water resource management and agricultural firm."

After lengthy negotiations, the company and the massive Metropolitan Water District agreed last month on the economic terms for the $150-million project to store Colorado River water in a desert aquifer beneath the Cadiz and Fenner valleys, 60 miles southwest of Needles. Some of the river water and the water stored naturally beneath the valleys would be pumped out of the aquifer in dry years for delivery to the water district, which serves 17 million residents of Southern California.

But before the underground water storage project can proceed, the district board of directors must certify as adequate a final document analyzing the project's impact on the desert environment and approve a long-term contract.

If the project goes forward, Cadiz could be paid hundreds of millions of dollars to store, extract and provide water during the 50-year life of the project.

Supporters of the project, including Cadiz and water district, hail it as a model for storage and use of surplus Colorado River water that Arizona and Nevada are entitled to take but currently don't use.

But opponents, including some environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, fear the plan could lead to destruction of a fragile desert ecosystem by removing not just stored water but draining the existing aquifer as well.

The Sierra Club is strongly backing Villaraigosa for mayor. So is Cadiz. The opposing positions set the stage for a potential collision over the water project this summer and fall if Villaraigosa wins.

Parke Skelton, Villaraigosa's campaign consultant, said that if the former speaker wins, he is likely to appoint MWD board members that have "substantial environmental sensibilities."

He said Villaraigosa has talked to Brackpool but said they have never discussed the Cadiz project.

Brackpool said in an interview that he strongly favors Villaraigosa's election. "We've been supportive of Antonio for a long time. He'd make a wonderful mayor," Brackpool said. "I've certainly been with him in this race from the day he entered it."

The British-born Brackpool has become a key player in California water politics. He is a leading advisor and campaign contributor to Davis. He was appointed by Davis to serve on a commission assessing the state's future needs.

"We've played a lot of roles in a lot of campaigns," he said. "I'm not shying away from saying that we've been active politically."

He said he knows Villaraigosa "fairly well" and has "held some events for him." Villaraigosa has flown on the company's plane, although he reimbursed Cadiz for a flight to Fresno. Other state officials, including Davis, have regularly flown on Cadiz's aircraft.

Cadiz and its agricultural subsidiary, Sun World International, began giving to Villaraigosa when he became Assembly speaker. The company donated $40,000 in 1998 and $25,000 in 1999.

When Villaraigosa launched his mayoral bid in 1999, Cadiz, Brackpool, his wife, Patrice, and company geologist Mark A. Liggett each gave $1,000 to support the campaign.

It was only the beginning.

In June 2000, Cadiz covered the costs of a reception for Villaraigosa at the Manhattan Beach Country Club.

When the campaign contribution limits in the mayor's race were raised to $7,000 before last month's election, money from Cadiz started gushing to Villaraigosa's campaign.

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