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Major Setback for Desert Water Project

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Backers say the Cadiz Valley may be a source of water for Southern California suburbs | Photo:Chris Clarke

A proposal to pump water from the desert for use in Southern California suburbs suffered a blow Friday, as a Bureau of Land Management official recommended against granting the project's backers permission Friday to use an existing rail corridor to pipe water to the Metropolitan Water District's aqueduct.

The company Cadiz, Inc. wants to pump up to 50,000 acre-feet a year -- more than 16 billion gallons -- from an aquifer in the Mojave Desert to sell to a consortium of Southern California water providers, led by Orange County's Santa Margarita Water District. Opponents claim the project could cause irreversible damage to the Mojave Desert's ecosystem, drying up springs by lowering the level of the aquifer.

Cadiz counters that the project would actually salvage water that would otherwise be lost to evaporation, and that it would only take 30 years for the aquifer to refill after they're done pumping. It's that scientific dispute that makes Friday's finding by the BLM potentially catastrophic for Cadiz.

The Bureau of Land Management's California State Director Jim Kenna told Cadiz officials in a letter Friday that use of the railroad right of way for Cadiz's pipeline doesn't "further a railroad purpose." In essence, the seemingly minor "administrative determination" means the company will likely have to put its project through a full federal environmental review if it's going to proceed. And that means federal hydrologists will cast a critical eye on the company's claims, and that may kill the project.

Cadiz had argued that its proposed 43-mile pipeline along the right-of-way of the Arizona California Railroad (AZCR) would have augmented the safety of railroad operations, by providing water for firefighting along the railroad's right of way through one of the least-vegetated sections of the Mojave, as well as drinking and cooling water for possible passenger excursions. If that argument had flown, Cadiz could have taken advantage of a loophole of sorts that would have exempted the pipeline -- and thus the whole project -- from federal environmental review. Cadiz is asking that the determination by California BLM chief Jim Kenna be reviewed by Kenna's boss, BLM Director Neil Kornze, but the chances that Kornze would countermand Kenna's call are slender.

Veteran Southern California water wonks will be well acquainted with Cadiz: it's the latest version of a proposal to mine the aquifer in the Cadiz and Fenner valleys south of the Mojave National Preserve that's been floating around for more than 15 years. When first floated in the early months of the 21st Century, the Cadiz project would have provided 50,000 acre-feet a year to the Metropolitan Water District.

An acre-foot is a standard western water unit: it's enough water to flood an acre a foot deep, or 325,851.429 gallons. Put in more accessible terms, an acre-foot is a year's supply of water for three average (pre-drought) California households.

The proposal was intensely controversial, involving a highly colorful cast of characters and Byzantine politics (which I described here in 2012). Beset with scathing public criticism, MWD bailed on the water project, only to become the target of a lawsuit by Cadiz for backing out of the deal.Most of the controversy centered on whether the aquifer under the Cadiz Valley could actually support exports of 50,000 acre-feet per year. It didn't help Cadiz's cause when in 2000, hydrologists at the U.S. Geological Survey assessed Cadiz's claims and found them wanting. You can read the USGS assessment here, appended to the National Park Service's 2000 comments on the Cadiz' project's Environmental Impact Statement, but here's the money quote:

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.

The USGS reported that its tests showed that most of the water in the aquifer had been there for between 5,000 and 10,000 years, and that the amount of water recharging the aquifer each year was probably in the neighborhood of 2,500 acre-feet per year, rather than the 39,000 acre-feet and change Cadiz had suggested.

If true, that meant that Cadiz's estimates for how much water it could pump without doing permanent damage to the aquifer and the environment were way high. Environmentalist opposition mounted, MWD pulled out of the project in 2002, and aside from the lawsuit -- which cost MWD ratepayers $2 million in legal costs -- Cadiz seemed dead for some years.

By 2012, when I described the Cadiz project's history in some detail, the proposal had been back on its feet for three years, this time with a group of smaller SoCal water agencies -- Santa Margarita Water District, Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Golden State Water Company, Jurupa Community Services District, and Suburban Water Systems -- in place of MWD. Cadiz now claimed that of the up to 50,000 acre-feet per year it planned to sell coastal and Inland Empire water companies, as much as 32,000 would be water that would otherwise have evaporated from the surface of dry lakes in the area, wicked from underground to the surface via capillary action.

Federal scientists have criticized that assertion as well: in Park Service comments on the project's Environmental Impact Report required under state law, Mojave National Preserve scientist Debra Hughson estimated the actual loss to evaporation is likely between 4,650 and 7,750 acre-feet per year -- way less than 32,000.

Hughson's comments, from a scientist charged with working on every aspect of the natural world surrounding the Preserve, from the perspective of a stakeholder (The Park Service)? They were embarrassing. Imagine how it would look if the leading federal hydrologists in the USGS weighed in!

But the only way USGS would weigh in is if the project required federal environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, whose Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) are the counterpart to the California Environmental Quality Act's Environmental Impact Reviews (EIRs). And in order to trigger federal review of the project, there has to be federal involvement: funding, agency participation, or some other way in which federal agencies would take part in carrying the project out.

One of the usual triggers for federal environmental assessment is involving federal land somehow, either because the project is sited on federal land or because it involves roads, transmission lines, or pipelines that cross federal land. Cadiz's wells would be on private land, but getting water from those wells to the MWD's aqueduct involves crossing about 40 miles of public land in the Mojave Desert. That would trigger the EIS process which in turn would involve the USGS, which agency would likely have unflattering things to say about Cadiz's claims.

Cadiz may have had other reasons for trying to use the 43-mile right-of-way of the Arizona and California Railroad (AZRC) for its pipeline route. But by choosing that route, Cadiz was able to make the case that its pipeline would have fulfilled functions essential to the running of the railroad, thus escaping the environmental review provisions of NEPA.

As an "administrative determination" rather than a final decision by the BLM. Kenna's letter Friday isn't a slam dunk death blow for the Cadiz project. But as Kornze is unlikely to overrule Kenna, Cadiz will likely have to decide whether it wants to put its scientific claims up against those of the USGS by going the NEPA Environmental Impact Statement route.

And at the very least, that means another couple years of delay for a water project whose backers hoped to break ground more than a decade ago.

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