In California’s water politics, it always pays to follow the money. So advised the late UCLA historian Norris Hundley, author of “The Great Thirst: Californians and Water.” That’s because the unfettered pursuit of white gold in this state has prompted the rise of what he called a “new kind of social imperialist whose goal was to acquire the water of others and prosper at their expense, a goal that catapulted California into a modern colossus while also producing monumental conflicts and social costs.”
A small but significant example of Huntley’s insight about costs and conflicts is the recent $805,000 grant that Cadiz Inc., a well-funded water-mining project in the Mojave Desert, has given to Three Valleys Municipal Water District, headquartered in Claremont. That grant amounts to a dollar for each person that Three Valleys serves in Claremont, La Verne, San Dimas and Glendora, as well as Pomona, Walnut, Covina, and other jurisdictions in eastern Los Angeles County. The money will not be distributed to the ratepayers. It will not underwrite badly needed water conservation initiatives. It is instead a different kind of payoff, which is why following its paper trail is as crucial as it is revelatory.
Southern California is home to dozens of local water districts that usually fly well beneath the radar. Their actions usually only rise to the surface when, for example, their directors get caught with their hands in the till or fail to provide clean, safe water. One such problem child is the Central Basin Municipal Water District (CBMWD), a public agency, which provides water to the three separate and private water purveyors in Maywood. A target of an FBI corruption investigation in 2013, CBMWD also has been accused of providing substandard water. "It’s kind of brown, almost like tea, and it tastes like rotten eggs," one resident complained.
Whatever their conscientiousness, these many individual and localized agencies collectively can have a region-wide impact on Southern California’s water future. That influence has been particularly apparent since the major drought that began in 2010. It served as a dramatic wakeup call for officials at all levels of government, as well as water purveyors and residents. Everyone seemed to recognize that the region needed to institute rigorous conservation measures. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown was among many arguing that slowing consumption was the least expensive and most effective way to ratchet down demand for costly imported water that flowed into Southern California via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, State Water Project and Colorado River Aqueduct.
In contrast to that unanimity of opinion about conservation, and the subsequent measures that demonstrated its effectiveness, the Cadiz grant to Three Valleys is designed to force continued reliance on expensive, imported water via long-distance infrastructure. If successful, this scheme will erode the last decade’s commitments to the three Rs of water conservation: reduce, reuse and recycle.
Cadiz, Inc.’s business plan makes this clear. Draining millions of gallons of groundwater from beneath the Mojave Desert at a site near the Mojave National Preserve, Cadiz would sell this irreplaceable resource at premium prices to Southern California water districts. One of the agencies transfixed by the Cadiz mirage is Three Valleys Municipal Water District. In late February, it accepted that bundle of Cadiz cash to underwrite “independent research” of the Mojave project’s environmental impact.
The grant is actually a pass-through: Three Valleys has handed it off to a consulting firm called Aquilogics. The firm’s founder and chief executive officer, Anthony Brown, has written numerous newspaper commentaries advocating for the Cadiz project, arguing that its pumping scheme will not damage ecosystems. “Now is not the time to be playing policy games to stop environmentally reviewed projects,” he wrote in 2015. “Now more than ever is the time for the Cadiz Water Project to finally proceed.”
Like Brown, Three Valleys has a vested interest in this research’s predetermined outcome: in 2010, it signed an option agreement to procure Cadiz Inc. water. As troublesome is the not-so-hidden agenda of the Cadiz-Three Valleys-Aquilogics study. The report will reach a preordained conclusion that the project is environmentally benign and sustainable because Cadiz is gambling that a salutary result will improve the project’s odds of passing muster with an upcoming mandatory review by the California State Lands Commission.
The odds are not in Cadiz, Inc.’s favor, however, because peer-reviewed scholarship already has documented the project’s deleterious impact. As independent researchers Adam H. Love and Andy Zdon note in a recent paper in “Hydrology,” and another co-authored article in “Environmental Forensics,” any entity that pumps large volumes of Mojave groundwater will significantly lower the regional water table and its many interconnected springs. If that occurs, their scientific analyses reveal, these desert springs will dry up and compromise the survival of wildlife that inhabits these arid lands, among the driest in the nation.
As Gov. Gavin Newsom put it last August while signing SB 307, a law requiring Cadiz, Inc. to demonstrate its environmental impact: “Water has flowed underneath the Mojave for thousands of years, sustaining the Native Americans, bighorn sheep, the threatened desert tortoise and a variety of other plant and animal life that have made the Mojave Desert their home.”
Protecting the endangered Mojave is essential. So is prioritizing strict water conservation measures. Each will make the region more sustainable, habitable and resilient. Whether Cadiz, Inc. can fulfill these vital environmental goals and convince the California Lands Commission that its project it will do no harm is the $805,000 question.