As Southern California's population grows and water is in ever shorter supply, one Orange County water district is looking to an odd source for more water: the middle of the Mojave Desert.
The Santa Margarita Water District, which provides water services to 150,000 residents and businesses in Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita and adjacent unincorporated areas, is putting together a proposal to import up to 50,000 acre-feet of water into Coastal Southern California each year from the Cadiz Valley, a wind-swept desert valley between Twenty-Nine Palms and Needles. The district plans to release a draft Environmental Impact Review on the project for public comment in late July.
That EIR will almost certainly be scrutinized line-by-line by desert protection activists, some of whom are calling this "the project that would not die."
Santa Margarita's partners in the venture are Cadiz Inc, which owns about 34,000 acres in the Cadiz and Fenner valleys in San Bernardino County, and four other Southern California water companies: Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Golden State Water Company, Jurupa Community Services District and Suburban Water Systems.
Cadiz Inc.'s land lies atop a large aquifer -- an underground reservoir which Cadiz's consultants say may hold between 17 and 34 million acre-feet of water, most of it laid down during the Ice Age. In the project's first stage Cadiz would build 44 miles of pipeline from wells on its property along a railroad right of way to the Colorado River Aqueduct west of the town of Rice. From there the water would head to the Greater Los Angeles Area, and the appropriate amounts apportioned to participating water districts.
Cadiz's selling point for the project is that the water it pumps from the aquifer would otherwise be lost to evaporation. In the words of the company's website,
The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project is designed to capture and conserve billions of gallons of renewable native groundwater flowing beneath our property in the Cadiz Valley that is currently lost to evaporation at nearby dry lakes. Through the active management of the aquifer system, the Project will create a new, sustainable water supply for Project participants without adversely impacting the aquifer system or the desert environment.
The second stage of the project will involve building a second pipeline to pump "surplus" Colorado River water to the Cadiz Valley, where it would be emptied into "recharge basins" and allowed to percolate into the aquifer, to be pumped out again in dry years. Cadiz states that this phase could provide evaporation-proofed storage of up to a million acre-feet of water, a tempting proposal for Southern California water managers.
If this all gives you a sense of déjà vu, there's a reason for that: this project is a near-copy of one pushed a decade ago by Cadiz in tandem with the Metropolitan Water District. That proposal basically contained the same elements: pumping of aquifer water and storage of the occasional Colorado surplus, and an assertion that the developers could sustainably remove 50,000 acre-feet of water from the aquifer.
Environmentalists shredded that old proposal. Independent hydrologists countered Cadiz's claims about the amount of water the aquifer could spare each year, with one saying:
the estimate of annual recharge used in the Draft EIR/EIS is an order of magnitude too high--it is probably only 5,000-6,000 ac-ft/yr... once development has proceeded for a period of several decades simply stopping the pumping of native groundwater, as implied in the Supplemental EIR/EIR, will not halt the adverse environmental impacts--in other words, the groundwater system once perturbed has sufficient persistence that adverse impacts will persist well beyond 100 years, even though the project is stopped after 50 year or earlier.
Other geologists alleged Cadiz had inflated the sustainable yield of water by a factor of 15.
Drawing down the aquifer would degrade habitat in a number of surrounding protected areas, others pointed out, including the aquifer's headwaters in the Mojave National Preserve, with significant impacts to bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and animals dependent on the area's small springs. What's more, the older version of the project would have run its pipeline to the aqueduct not along the railroad, but directly through the Iron Mountains, a relatively pristine bit of desert habitat.
Water pollution was also a concern. Not only would pumping saltier water from the Colorado into the aquifer permanently alter the valley's groundwater quality, but the aquifer was found to contain significant amounts of hexavalent Chromium, the same toxic chemical responsible for the public health issues in Hinckley that launched Erin Brockovich's rise to prominence.
For a time in 2001, it looked to desert environmentalists as though the fix was in. Cadiz's controversial founder Keith Brackpool was cozy with California politicos ranging from Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger to Antonio Villaraigosa, a close friend of Brackpool's. Nonetheless, MWD backed out on the deal in 2002, perhaps due to that year's being the dryest year on record for the Colorado River. Why invest millions in a partnership to store surplus water if there is no surplus?
Aside from the alignment of the "conveyance pipeline," the only real difference between the old plan and Cadiz 2.0 would seem to be the claim that any water pumped from the aquifer would have been lost to surface evaporation. This, along with Cadiz's other environmental claims, will likely be scrutinized closely once the draft EIR is available later this summer.
The stakes are rather high. Aquifers can collapse if overdrawn, causing the land to subside and permanently reducing the aquifer's future capacity. A few years of excessive pumping could permanently damage thousands of square miles of the wild Mojave.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday at 10 a.m. He lives in Palm Springs.