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Conservation and Sustainable Management of Groundwater in Desert is Worthy of Support

Water emerging from the Cadiz aquifer | Photo: Cadiz, Inc.
Water emerging from the Cadiz aquifer | Photo: Cadiz, Inc.

[Over the past few years KCET has run several stories critical of the proposed Cadiz water project. We thought it only fair to offer a representative from Cadiz an opportunity to share that company's viewpoint. — eds.]

Commentary: Over the last two decades, California has grappled with systemic challenges to its traditional water supplies. Climatic extremes and more regular dry years are the new normal. The availability of reliable water to meet all of the state’s demands is a persistent public policy issue. It is a bedrock social justice issue. We need water for our people, our environment and to sustain our way of life.

Some would have us embrace permanent austerity to address our changing needs, but this strategy is often blind to the cost borne by real people every day who depend on access to reliable water. It is not responsible to our reality of a growing population and a world-leading economy to not also pursue a variety of solutions, including new water supplies and storage, to help address our chronic water supply challenges. California has created a rigorous framework of environmental laws and policies to ensure that if we do pursue such strategies, they will be developed sustainably and in an environmentally benign manner.

It is against this backdrop that in 2009 Cadiz Inc. set the objective of creating, designing, permitting and constructing an environmentally benign water project. Coupled with our holistic land management strategy that already governs our agricultural operations, we set out to provide net environmental benefits. Today, we are nearing completion of these objectives. 

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Cadiz Inc. is the largest private landowner in the eastern Mojave Desert, where billions of gallons of water evaporate every year from the highly-saline Bristol and Cadiz dry lakes, the down-gradient end of a massive groundwater basin in a watershed the size of Rhode Island. To stop this loss, we’ve proposed to better manage the basin to provide a reliable supply and new aquifer storage capacity. By capturing and conserving water at the wellfield on our properties, we can create a new, sustainable annual supply for nearly 400,000 Californians.

Under our plan, conserved project water would be delivered to the Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River Aqueduct for distribution throughout Southern California via a pipeline that would be built in an existing railroad right-of-way, a route chosen because it will avoid impacts to untouched desert lands. The project will create and support thousands of jobs for local residents and veterans, generate nearly $1 billion in economic activity, augment Southern California’s water supply reliability and take pressure off existing imported supplies. Although the project concept may sound unique, the sustainable use of groundwater in California’s managed basins and the movement of water between basins is not. Californians have a history of not living where the water is, and all seven Southern California counties rely on imports from the State Water Project, the Colorado River and neighboring basins to sustain their populations.

Transparent public oversight is incorporated into the project’s design to ensure that it is operated sustainably. The County of San Bernardino, which was viewed as the superior protector of desert groundwater resources during the recent controversy over the Soda Mountain solar generating station, will oversee pumping. Data on groundwater levels will be compiled, posted for the public, and reviewed by an independent committee appointed by the County. If water levels fall below a county-designated floor, or if there’s evidence of unanticipated impacts on desert springs, flora or fauna, the County can adjust or even stop operations.

The project and its benefits have been widely supported by elected officials, and the labor, business, and scientific communities. But water ignites the passion of many Californians and our project has not gone without criticism. Those most oft-cited relate to concerns over our promise to do no harm to sensitive desert lands, habitats and springs. Our estimates of the groundwater basin’s depth and breadth are therefore often also challenged. Some also aim to delegitimize the Project’s permitting process by claiming it has not undergone appropriate review.  

First, let’s address hydrologic studies. Hydrologic studies are something most of us have never seen and can often seem mysterious. Desert aquifers seem intuitively rather small, like the 100,000 acre-foot Morongo Basin aquifer. The Cadiz aquifer system is an exception. At an estimated 20 million acre-feet, it is as large as Lake Mead. To estimate the aquifer system’s size and how much water flows into it annually (its recharge rate), reviewing hydrologists used the US Geological Survey’s newest and best computer model for desert hydrology in the Southwestern U.S., which was created in 2006. Opponents try to challenge the Project by citing a study done in 2000 with an older USGS model that lacked any local inputs. However, even hydrologists retained by project opponents for review of the current project estimated recharge more than seven times greater than the old 2000 prediction.

Application of this new USGS model showed the aquifer’s recharge rate to be 32,000 acre-feet a year, a significant number. To verify it, we asked scientists from the Desert Research Institute to measure evaporation from the Bristol and Cadiz dry lakes, where all the water in the aquifer ends up, completing the water cycle. The amount of water going in should equal the amount of water evaporating out, and that is what the study verified — the volumes are the same. While opponents criticize our estimates of the aquifer’s size and robustness, it’s tough to argue with the water.  It’s there in such abundant quantities that our agricultural wells are measuring at their highest-ever levels, even after years of drip-irrigating our vineyards and lemon orchards.  For those who can’t imagine water under the desert, please check out this down-hole video, which shows the vast amount of water in the porous rock formations under our land.

Downhole view of Cadiz Valley well | Video: Cadiz Water Project

As required by law, the project and these studies were reviewed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the most protective and rigorous environmental law in the nation. Unlike the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), CEQA requires that significant environmental impacts be not just identified, but also addressed and mitigated. To comply with CEQA, a 6,000-page Environmental Impact Report (and 24,000-page administrative record) was prepared that included watershed hydrological analysis (a study that was peer-reviewed by an independent panel of hydrologists and experts, and independently verified by the County of San Bernardino), plus studies of impacts on plants, animals and springs, air quality, aesthetics, greenhouse gases, cultural resources and other areas of potential impact.

Reviewing hydrologists and independent peer reviewers visited all the mountain springs in the 1,300 square-mile watershed. The closest spring to the Project area is more than 11 miles away and at a substantially higher elevation than the valley floor, where the Project would capture the groundwater. Further, these mountain springs are fed from above, not below, and are disconnected from the alluvial aquifer at Cadiz, leading one independent expert to say it is “impossible” for the project to impact the springs.

After multiple town meetings, a lengthy public comment period and public hearings, the EIR and its companion Groundwater Management, Monitoring and Mitigation Plan were approved. The EIR found that the water project could be operated with no significant environmental impacts. During this process, groups opposing the project presented all their arguments, which were considered carefully, evaluated by science and addressed in detail. Nevertheless, as is common in California, opponents sued under CEQA to challenge the review. Their arguments were considered again, first by a Superior Court judge in six separate cases, then by the California Court of Appeals, and all claims against the Project were rejected by the courts.

The most common criticism of the Project since these Court findings has been of our strategy to route our pipeline in an already disturbed railroad right-of-way. The Department of Interior reviewed our proposed use of the railroad right-of-way in 2009 and stated that it was within its scope and required no additional permitting. The evaluation was consistent with more than a century of precedent supporting the co-location of infrastructure in these rights-of-way across the American West. However, rather than laud the route’s smart co-location and avoidance of impacts to sensitive habitats, critics often accuse us of trying to avoid environmental review. 

The current project was thoroughly reviewed and approved under CEQA, as described above. Federal agencies reviewed and commented on the project’s EIR, and none of them sued to overturn its approval. And it’s important to note that an earlier, more impactful iteration of the Cadiz project was evaluated in 2002 by the Federal government under NEPA, and even though that project design would have pumped twice as much water and moved it through a pipeline across open federal lands, it was approved by Interior.

Despite these realities, opponents used political influence over several years to try to require Cadiz to get a federal permit to use the railway right of way, even though that is not what the current law requires. They won a victory in October 2015, when the California State Office of the Bureau of Land Management wrote a highly controversial decision contrary to existing law and policy on third party use of railroad rights of way that said a permit would be required. There has been much criticism of this decision in the media, and members of Congress have called for its reversal and are conducting an active investigation into what influences were behind it. But this political conversation often overlooks the simplest point: The demand that Cadiz be required to obtain a federal permit to use the railroad right of way is not made out of concern for the environment, since the extensive environmental review that was conducted concluded that the Project would not have a significant impact on the environment, but instead comes from a calculated strategy to delay the water, jobs, and supply certainty the project would provide.

cadiz-signcrop-6-6-16.jpg
Photo: Chris Clarke

As the October 2015 decision of the California State Office of BLM comes under intense scrutiny, some have suggested that the executive order that created the new Mojave Trails National Monument requires federal review of Cadiz’s proposed use of the railroad right of way or of Cadiz’s pumping of groundwater from its own land in the area. But that is not the case. The creation of the Monument was made subject to all valid existing rights, like the railroad right of way, and does not in any way restrict the use of private property that lies within, adjacent to, or nearby the boundaries of the Monument.  We are a long-time desert business that has safely and sustainably managed groundwater at our property for over 25 years. Our rights, just like those of all other existing landowners in the desert, including Tribes, railroads, farmers and residents on private land, were respected and protected by the Monument designation.

Nearly a decade ago, Cadiz set out to design a water supply project that is smart, safe and sustainable. With early criticisms in mind, we constrained the size and scope of the Project to protect the environment from harm. Today the Cadiz Water Project offers the potential of a new annual water supply for 400,000 people, new groundwater storage, nearly $1 billion in economic stimulus, over 5,000 jobs and a plan that has been reviewed, approved and upheld by California’s courts. Along the way, in partnership with the San Diego Zoo, we also established the largest desert tortoise conservation bank in California. 

As we move ahead to implementing the Project this year, we expect there will be continued debate about our efforts to increase water supply reliability and storage in Southern California. But the Cadiz Water Project has done things the right way, will benefit many, and can be implemented safely. In the end, it’s our hope that will be the story.

Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KCETLink.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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