To the dismay of environmentalists, the U.S. Interior Department approved yesterday a $1 billion, 50-year project to store water beneath the Mojave Desert, in what would be one of California’s largest water storage facilities. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District would store surplus Colorado River water in an aquifer under the desert; during dry years, the water would be pumped from the aquifer into the MWD system, which serves 17 million people. The water district would buy the water from Cadiz, Inc., which owns the land above the aquifer, an arrangement critics regard as an ominous return to the days of private, for-profit water companies. Environmentalists fear the project would endanger the fragile desert ecosystem supported by the aquifer and pose a threat to species such as bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise. But the Interior Department brushed aside those concerns, saying project managers would ensure that the aquifer wasn’t drained too rapidly.