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Tortoise Can Endure Project, Agency Says


Moving the controversial project a step closer to approval, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that a water storage and retrieval project in the Mojave Desert would not imperil the desert tortoise, a federally protected species.

After reviewing plans by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Santa Monica based-Cadiz Land Co., the Fish and Wildlife Service said the estimated $1-billion, 50-year project "is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of the tortoise or its habitat.

The opinion does not mean tortoises wouldn't be harmed, but that the project would not drive the reptiles--classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act--out of existence.

Among other things, the water district has pledged to ban tortoise-eating dogs from the project, keep tortoise-eating birds such as ravens from congregating, and order workers to drive cautiously and watch for the slow-moving herbivorous reptiles.

If a tortoise is run over or otherwise harmed, the water district has agreed to notify federal and state agencies so that an immediate investigation can be launched.

Cadiz Vice President Marv Shaw said the decision confirms the company's view that the project is "environmentally sensitive."

But Jane Kelly, director of the California office of Public Citizen, a group founded by Ralph Nader, called the review "inadequate."

Among other concerns, Kelly said that the number of ravens that will be attracted to the holding ponds has been greatly underestimated.

"It's going to draw more than they can shoo away," she said.

The MWD would store water from the Colorado River in an aquifer beneath land in eastern San Bernardino County controlled by Cadiz, an agriculture and water development company whose chief executive and board chairman is Keith Brackpool, a water advisor to Gov. Gray Davis.

In dry years, water from the aquifer would be used in the six counties that depend on the MWD. Although the district has two similar aquifer projects in the California desert, the Cadiz project has become controversial in large measure because it represents an unparalleled opportunity for a private firm to profit by storing and selling water.

Environmental groups oppose the project on numerous grounds, and have alleged that pumping water from the aquifer will harm the fragile desert ecology and that the MWD and Cadiz have overestimated the amount of water in the aquifer.

The Fish and Wildlife Service ruling is the forerunner to a more significant ruling by the Department of the Interior, which is expected within a month. The department is evaluating a series of land-use and environmental questions.

If the Interior Department finds the project a suitable use for the property, much of which is owned by the federal government and leased to Cadiz, the project will then be considered by the MWD governing board.

A year ago, the board voted tentatively to approve the project but withheld final approval until a further review of environmental and financial terms was undertaken.

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