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What the Cadiz Water Plan is and Why it Needs to be Stopped

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A better use for Mojave Desert groundwater, according to some | Photo: John Alesi/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A long-promoted plan to pipe water from one of the driest parts of the Mojave Desert to irrigate Southern California's cities continues to find new critics, who are slamming the project on environmental grounds. The Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, which in its first phase would drill wells into the desert near Cadiz Dry Lake and pump groundwater into the Colorado River Aqueduct at a cost of $240 million, continues to take heat over its claims that it can pull 50,000 acre-feet of water out of the desert each year without damaging the Mojave Desert's ecosystem. But an increasing number of people aren't buying it.

The plan is being pushed by Cadiz, Inc., a landowner in the Cadiz Valley and the adjacent Fenner Valley for three decades. Cadiz is working with the Santa Margarita Water District, an Orange County water district serving Rancho Santa Margarita and other towns in the Trabuco Canyon area, to push the project through administrative channels.The two are joined by Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Golden State Water Company, Jurupa Community Services District and Suburban Water Systems, all of which serve communities in eastern Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire. Cadiz would sell water to these service districts at a rate varying from 300-500 dollars per acre-foot.


An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land to a depth of a foot, or 325,851 gallons. In non-water-wise neighborhoods, it's the usual annual supply for a family of five. It's also an amount of water that's a little hard for many of us to picture. But customers of the Santa Margarita Water District likely will be able to picture Lago Santa Margarita, pictured here:

Another possible destination for Cadiz Valley water | Photo: Stephen Zopf/Flickr/Creative Commons License

An artificial decorative lake in Rancho Santa Margarita, Lago Santa Margarita is eight feet deep at its deepest point, and covers 11.5 acres -- the equivalent of almost nine football fields, including end zones. When full, Lago Santa Margarita holds 95 acre-feet of water. The lake has no natural inflow, so when its water evaporates the local parks department fills it with water imported from California's two major aqueducts. Per this state map, evapotranspiration for Rancho Santa Margarita runs about 50 inches a year, which means Rancho Santa Margarita must replace about 42 acre-feet per year (AFY) that evaporates from the lake's 11.5-acre surface. That's about 44% of the total volume of the lake, replaced each year so that it can keep evaporating.

The amount of water Cadiz, Santa Margarita Water District, and their colleagues would remove from the Cadiz Valley each year would refill the decorative Lago Santa Margarita for 1,190 years.

Or if you'd prefer a more Los Angeles-centric image, try this: Cadiz would pump enough water from the desert to fill the Rose Bowl to the brim, and then drain it all away, 194 times a year.

Though some of Cadiz's water would very likely be spent on frivolities like refilling pretty lakes in affluent neighborhoods, the majority of it is being talked about as fuel for growth. Cadiz claims its average 50,000AFY will supply 100,000 homes, a reasonable enough estimate if you don't let too much of it evaporate from lakes. Which means Cadiz water will very likely allow development in places where insufficient water supplies had previously obstructed it. Even if Cadiz were completely correct about the project's sustainability in the desert, the project may well do unacceptable environmental harm to Southern California open space.

Political Pull

This isn't the first time the project's been proposed. In 2000-2002, Cadiz teamed up with the Metropolitan Water District to propose a very similar project to take 50,000 AFY out of the Cadiz aquifer and send it to the MWD's customers. The MWD backed out of the plan after scathing public comment, as well as an analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey that undermined Cadiz's hydrological claims. (The USGS's comments from 2000 can be seen starting on page 12 of this PDF.)

During the first iteration of the plan and in the years after Cadiz showed itself to be supremely adept at working political influence. Quite a number of prominent California pols have been on Cadiz's payroll at one point or another. Susan Kennedy, the former Chief of Staff for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, received $10,000 a month for consulting work with Cadiz in 2005. During that time Kennedy also sat on the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees water agencies, and the California Bay Delta Authority, which coordinates water exports from the Sacramento River watershed. In 2009, during Kennedy's tenure with his administration, Arnold proclaimed his support for the Cadiz project. Cadiz's stock price jumped by 45% on the day of the endorsement. This was likely to the delight of Cadiz's colorful CEO Keith Brackpool, who had acquired options on 60,000 shares of Cadiz stock two weeks beforehand.

In years previous, Brackpool donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to former governor Gray Davis' campaign fund; a gesture that certainly did nothing to impede Davis' support for the project.

The list of policymakers that have been recipients of largesse from ether Brackpool or Cadiz or both is long, including the gamut from lame duck San Bernardino Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district includes Cadiz, to former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Probably of keenest interest to Los Angeles readers is Brackpool's cozy long-term relationship with the city's mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. As veteran water journalist Emily Green wrote in 2009:

In 2001, Antonio Villaraigosa took a shot at the Los Angeles mayor ship, heavily backed by then Governor Gray Davis and Brackpool. He lost in a run-off, and the defeat was swiftly followed by the political storm that led to Davis's recall. In the midst of this, in October 2002, Metropolitan voted against accepting right of way across Bureau of Land Management desert to run a pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct. In other words, it killed the deal.The Cadiz share price plummeted, but within weeks, Brackpool got a $35 million credit facility. As it turned out, 2002 was the worst drought year on record for the Colorado River and Brackpool was still sitting on something tantalizing, especially in a drought: a source of new water. As Villaraigosa planned a bid for city council, Brackpool put Villaraigosa on the Cadiz payroll as a consultant. Five months after Villaraigosa was elected Mayor in May 2005, the pressure was on to revive the Cadiz project.

In 2006, while the MWD was defending itself against a suit by Cadiz for dropping the project -- a suit that cost MWD ratepayers $2 million to defend against -- Brackpool accompanied Villaraigosa on a trade junket to nine Asian cities. He also went with Villaraigosa on a nine-day European tour in 2010 whose ostensible purpose was to promote Los Angeles' green economy. Villaraigosa aide Nancy Sutley, now chair of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, was widely regarded as -- in Green's words -- "a Cadiz proxy" in the mayor's office. Cadiz and its backers have also contributed generously to Villaraigosa's political campaigns over the years, and Brackpool coughed up $25,000 for the mayor's inaugural ball.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having rich friends who support you, of course. But Cadiz's current proposal involves arranging with its former adversary, the MWD, to use MWD's aquifer to move that 50,000 acre-feet per year. And Villaraigosa has a great deal of pull within MWD.

Pushing Back

Clearly, Cadiz's political ties run as deep as any desert aquifer. But their ability to influence government seems to be running up against the law of unintended consequences.

Take for existence the awkward role of the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) in the whole affair. SMWD has taken on the role of lead agency in the environmental review process for Cadiz, a move that has attracted quite a bit of criticism. Ordinarily, the lead agency conducting environmental assessment of a large, potentially destructive project such as Cadiz would be located far closer to the project site than the 135 miles between Cadiz Dry Lake and Rancho Santa Margarita. In the case of Cadiz, the logical lead agency would be San Bernardino County.

However, San Bernardino County has relinquished its rightful role as lead agency for the project, a staggeringly incongruous act in an era of conservative counties clamoring for increasing home rule. On May 2, the county's Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU) ceding the lead agency role to SMWD. Supervisor Neil Derry, the lone dissenting vote on the board, said he doubted that SMWD would not give the concerns of county residents sufficient weight in the assessment process.

Derry's doubts seem to be proving correct this week. A meeting of the SMWD board had been scheduled for Wednesday (June 27) at which public comment would be accepted from San Bernardino County residents. People from the Joshua Tree area and elsewhere in the county made plans to attend. Late in the day on Friday, Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association, who has been organizing desert community attendance at the meeting, was informed with less than a week's notice that it had been canceled. No replacement meeting has been scheduled.

The May 2 MOU contains other troubling provisions. Though San Bernardino County does retain ultimate veto power over the project, the MOU exempts the project from the county's Desert Groundwater Management Ordinance. Instead, the county will implement Cadiz's "Groundwater Management, Monitoring, and Mitigation Plan" (GMMMP) a policy created under the guidance of a panel of geologists hand-picked by Cadiz, and which at least in its draft stages would seem to weaken aquifer protection dramatically.

The MOU rewrites California water law with regard to defining when an aquifer is being over-drafted. Under California law, overdraft of an aquifer is defined on a year-by-year basis; a sensible measure in a place where aquifers are recharged by an annual wet season. Under the MOU, however, "overdraft" is defined in 10-year increments, leaving the county powerless to halt excessive pumping for as long as a decade after it is detected.

In a conversation I had with Shteir this week, he summed it up rather bluntly: "The MOU compromises protection of the aquifer in Cadiz and Fenner Valleys."

The MOU also seems to commit Cadiz to things not covered in the project's draft EIR. As a rather scathing letter from the Center For Biological Diversity to SMWD and the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors points out:

The MOU also reserves 20% of the water (Term 11) and 25,000 initial acre-feet (Term 10) for San Bernardino County, conditions whose existence--and extensive impacts--are also missing from the EIR and GMMMP, as is a description of the presumptive responsible agencies for handling this component of the project.

The County's apparent cession of its duties to monitor Cadiz is not lost on the residents of a number of communities in San Bernardino County, who are reluctant to see what they consider their water harvested by a private company and sold to coastal cities. Brad Mitzelfelt in particular has been taking a lot of heat: the principal architect of the MOU from the Board of Supervisors' end, he's being lambasted rather mercilessly in public meetings such as this one in May, in which the Supervisor seems to wilt under criticism from a Newberry Springs resident. (The captions and subtitles are the work of the videographers, not KCET or yours truly.)

Cadiz backers may well have seen that blowup coming. In February, the Mayor and City Council of Needles, California -- hardly an outpost of anti-development sentiment -- unanimously refused Cadiz's request to endorse the project, after city manager David Brownlee and municipal water department director Jerry Porter examined the project. They did so with former Cadiz VP Ted Dutton in attendance, and they did so in language that would not have been out of place on a radical environmentalist blog. As quoted in the San Bernardino Sentinel:

Brownlee told the council that he was highly skeptical of the claim the aquifer could be recharged in the aftermath of the extraction of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year over a 20-year period. Brownlee said the water the project will capture is a critical part of the desert ecosystem. "What is the definition of lost?" Brownlee asked. "Evaporation comes back as precipitation. It is a critical part of the natural cycle. It also sustains the desert vegetation and critters. I find it hard to believe that as much as 50,000 acre-feet are 'lost.'"
Present-day consumers of Mojave groundwater | Photo: Random Truth/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Water, Springs, and Wildlife

It's that last detail on which Cadiz has received the most devastating criticism. That criticism came not in hot-headed outrage from locals or environmental activists, but in a sober scientific assessment of the project submitted by Stephanie Dubois, the new Superintendent of Mojave National Preserve.

In this iteration of the Cadiz project, backers have adjusted their claims about the hydrology of the basin. Rather than taking an average of 50,000 acre-feet per year from the aquifer, Cadiz claims that it will be diverting 32,000 acre-feet each year that would have otherwise been evaporated from the surface of dry lakes in the area. This, Cadiz and its colleagues claim, would be an ecologically neutral savings of water that would otherwise have been wasted. The remainder of Cadiz's water deliveries, about 17,000 acre-feet per year, would come from the aquifer. Cadiz claims this amount of water would be restored to the aquifer within a few decades of the end of the 50-year project.

In other words, Cadiz claims it spent a decade reworking the theory behind the project, looked for a way to capture a source of groundwater unconnected from the aquifer they had originally intended to tap, found such a source, had their engineers at CH2M HIll study it for several years, and by an amazing coincidence found that the amount of water they could extract precisely matched the amount specified in their original business plan.

The comments by the National Park Service, prepared by the Preserve's science advisor Debra Hughson, undermine Cadiz's hydrological claims rather neatly. Take for example its analysis of Cadiz's claims about the amount of water "lost" to evaporation from the dry lakes:

Extensive evaporation from the playa is unlikely, including reports of water depths beneath Bristol Dry Lake ranging from 8 to 35 feet, which would require an unrealistic capillary rise to support a discharge of 32,000 AFY. The NPS demonstrates through extrapolation from a USGS study of groundwater discharge rates in Death Valley...that total groundwater discharge from the dry probably on the order of 4,650 to 7,750 AFY at best.

In other words, the Mojave National Preserve is saying that Cadiz's estimate of the water it can salvage is off by at least a factor of four. The NPS comments likewise argue that Cadiz is wrong about the rate of recharge of the aquifer, and that their estimate of the amount of water they could extract sustainably could be as much as 16 times too high.

Cadiz also claims, in its draft EIR and in much of its promotional material, that drawing down the aquifer would have no effect on nearby springs and seeps, as the aquifer is -- they say -- unconnected to surface water. The NPS comments rebut that contention in the subtly devastating language only agency scientists ever really master:

The SMWD presents a brief reconnaissance study in the Draft EIR of potential effects on springs and seeps from groundwater pumping by the Project concluding, unsurprisingly, that springs are not connected to the target aquifer and thus will be unaffected by the Project. Available evidence indicates that some springs within the Mojave National Preserve likely are hydraulically continuous with the aquifer...and that other springs within the Preserve likely are not.... In the absence of more conclusive, site-specific studies, it would be inappropriate to conclude a priori that all springs in the target area are hydraulically discontinuous with the target aquifer.

Emphasis added. I don't know how many agency comments you read in your daily life, but I read them fairly often, and that "unsurprisingly" is unusually cynical in context. The Park Service couldn't really come out and say they thought SMWD was finding the results that it wanted in the first place, a cardinal sin in science. So instead they said it was "unsurprising" the SMWD found the results it did. Zing.

NPS could also have scolded SMWD for ignoring the scientific aphorism that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." They didn't do so, but Oakland's dreadnought water policy think tank the Pacific Institute did, in its March 13 comments on the draft EIR:

[CH2M Hill's] technical memorandum states that, "there is no information demonstrating a physical connection of the identified springs in the local mountains to groundwater in the alluvial aquifer where Cadiz's pumping will take place." The DEIR suggests that the springs are therefore not hydraulically connected to the groundwater basin. The lack of evidence of any connection, however, is not the same as evidence for a lack of connection. This sentence could just as easily have said "there is no information demonstrating that the springs are not connected hydraulically to the alluvial aquifer where Cadiz's pumping will take place."

Even if Cadiz's theoretical hydrology turns out to be true with regard to how much evaporated water they'd be salvaging, however, the project is not sustainable. Cadiz admits that even using their own improbably optimistic figures for both recoverable evaporated water and aquifer recharge, the Cadiz and Fenner Valleys will take 30 years to recover after the 50-year life of the project comes to an end. And their figures are optimistic. (To put it mildly. An optimist says the glass is half full: Cadiz is telling us the glass contains several times as much water as the glass could physically hold.) And if Cadiz's figures aren't right, their project could cause irreversible damage to the desert, drying up those seeps and springs, sucking saline water into the aquifer, and causing the land to subside the way it has where aquifers were overdrafted in the San Joaquin Valley.

This would be a bad idea even if the desert in and surrounding the Cadiz and Fenner Valleys wasn't a national treasure of irreplaceable scenic, cultural, and ecological value, currently being considered for National Monument status. It would be a bad idea even if the water wasn't going to communities to help them maintain gigantic decorative lakes surrounded by lawn in a semi-arid climate, and generally encourage more of the same kind of development elsewhere.

Add those truths into the mix, however, and the Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project starts to sound like the worst idea ever. It's only gotten as far as it has because its backers have cultivated a powerful network of political allies. It's time to kill this project permanently. Some ideas are just bad no matter who your friends are.

[Note: this commentary has been edited. A previous version contained the sentence "Suburban growth enabled by Cadiz water is nowhere discussed in the draft EIR." In fact, the draft EIR's Chapter 6 discusses just that. I regret the error, which originated in a misreading of my own notes. I have also corrected an error regarding the cost of the first phase of the project. I originally cited the cost of Phase 1 as "nearly $540 million": this is actually Cadiz's projected cumulative cost on completing Phase 2, which involves storing water in the aquifer from the already oversubscribed Colorado River.]

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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