Will Congressman's Call Kill the Cadiz Water Project?

Rep. Cook speaks with Yucaipa students in D.C. | Photo: Rep. Paul Cook

Good news for Mojave Desert wildlife and the people who value it: the Congressional Representative whose district includes the site of the controversial proposed Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Storage, and Recovery Project, has called for a full federal environmental review of the project. Cadiz, which would pump water from a desert aquifer to water Southern California's coastal suburbs, is roundly opposed by environmental groups and desert residents.

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In a letter sent in June but only now gaining public attention, Representative Paul Cook asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to intervene in the project's Environmental Review process. Cook wants special attention paid to the rate at which the aquifer Cadiz plans to tap actually recharges from desert rain and snowmelt, and the likely impact on seeps and springs in the surrounding desert -- including the Mojave National Preserve.

The Cadiz Project, wrote Cook,

...is likely to impact San Bernardino County's water resources, harming ranchers, rural communities, east Mojave landowners, and the National Chloride Company of America's brine mining operation on Bristol Dry Lake. Moreover the aggressive project pumping could harm the springs of the Mojave National Preserve and regional air quality, while exporting precious water resources out of San Bernardino County to ratepayers in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

For more than a decade, Cadiz has been trying to win approval for its proposal to pump Mojave Desert groundwater into the swimming pools and lawn sprinklers of suburban Southern Californians. A previous iteration of the project would have shipped Cadiz's water to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). The project had fervent support from some of California's most influential pols: former Governors Davis and Schwarzenegger were close associates of Cadiz's founder Keith Brackpool, as is former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had a lot of pull with the MWD. Despite its powerful cronies, Cadiz version 1.0 collapsed in acrimony after federal scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey tore gaping holes in Cadiz's estimates of how much water it could take from the desert.

Cadiz 2.0 would extract a like amount of water, but the project gives every appearance of having been carefully planned to attempt to avoid triggering federal environmental review. San Bernardino County agreed last year to allow the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) to take on "lead agency" status to shepherd the process through the state's environmental review process. Nearly a year ago SMWD, the lead among the five water utilities waiting to buy Cadiz's water, approved the project's final Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

EIRs are prepared to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state's version of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. (You can tell which law an environmental impact assessment is created under by remembering that EIRs are CEQA, while NEPA requires Environmental Impact Statements, or EIS.) In many ways CEQA is stronger than NEPA, but unless a project being examined under CEQA triggers federal involvement, federal agencies such as the USGS pretty much stay out of the process.

In his letter, Cook asks Jewell to order the Bureau of Land Management to insist on formal environmental assessment of the Cadiz Project under NEPA before allowing the project to run 43 miles of pipeline along the right-of-way of the Arizona and California Railroad.

The BLM is expected to reach a decision on that pipeline right-of-way sometime this summer.

A formal NEPA review could kill the project. As I've reported here before, there's a whole lot of disagreement over Cadiz, Inc.'s claims regarding how much water the company can sustainably pull out of the desert aquifer each year without permanently damaging either the aquifer or the desert ecosystem it helps sustain. Cadiz claims that it will be able to extract as much as 50,000 acre-feet of water from the aquifer each year without permanently damaging the local environment.

According to the USGS's comments on that earlier version's draft groundwater resources report, which also projected around 50,000 acre-feet per year of water extraction, Cadiz had overestimated the potential amount of sustainably pumped water by quite a large amount:

A watershed model and water balance calculations, developed as part of the Draft Report, estimated that the quantity of indigenous water ranges from 20,000 to 71,000 acre-feet per year. A ground-water flow model was used to evaluate the impacts of the proposed project; the model assumed that the annual recharge to the Fenner, Bristol, and Cadiz watersheds was 50,000 acre-feet per year. The review of the Draft Report shows that the watershed model and water-balance studies presented in the Draft Report overestimate the natural recharge to the basin by 5 to 25 times the values estimated by this review team using similar methods. It is the opinion of the review team that the regional watershed model, water-balance studies, and ground-water flow and transport models were used without adequate data to support the results and the conclusions presented in the Draft Report.

In Cadiz 2.0, which started gaining steam in 2009, the company shifted its PR emphasis from mining deep groundwater to capturing water that would otherwise be lost to evaporation, thus allowing the company to refer to its proposal as a "conservation" project. Nonetheless, some of USGS's observations in the agency's comments on Cadiz 1.0 would be very damaging, including the statement that shallow groundwater in the Fenner Gap was mainly deposited thousands of years ago. (Cadiz points to water in the Fenner Gap's soils as evidence that the aquifer they want to tap is recharged by rain on an annual basis.)

So the fact that the Cadiz Valley's representative in Congress has asked the Interior Department to insist on a NEPA process before letting Cadiz run a pipeline along that railroad right of way has to be causing some anxiety at Cadiz HQ. Putting together an EIS means at the very least a significant delay as documents are prepared, public comment periods are endured, and protests are filed. And if the USGS gets its hands on Cadiz's science, the whole thing could end very badly for Cadiz.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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