September 28, 2008

Cadiz Valley desert water-storage plan renewed

The Press-Enterprise

The owners of remote desert land have revived a $200 million plan to store water underground to send to Southern California in dry times, although the region's major water agency rejected the idea six years ago.

Cadiz Inc., owner of land and water rights in the Cadiz Valley about 40 miles east of Twentynine Palms, has secured a 99-year lease to use railroad right-of-way for a 42-mile pipeline connecting to the Colorado River Aqueduct, said Richard Stoddard, chief executive officer of a sister company, Cadiz Real Estate LLC, in a telephone interview.

Water would be diverted from the aqueduct into the Cadiz pipeline and injected into the ground for storage in an aquifer beneath the company's land. When needed, the water would be returned to the aqueduct and could meet the needs of an estimated 1.2 million people in Southern California, the company contends.

Cadiz Inc.'s announcement surprised officials at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the major buyer and distributor of water in the region.

The district, which built and operates the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct that Cadiz wants to use, rejected a similar proposal in 2002 amid environmentalists' opposition and concerns about costs. In addition, the Colorado River didn't have surplus water to fill the Cadiz aquifer, district officials said.

"We don't have any plans to proceed with the (Cadiz) project, and they haven't discussed their new approach with us," said Timothy F. Brick, Metropolitan's board chairman.

Metropolitan would have less involvement this time around, said Courtney Dedener, Cadiz investor relations manager. The previous deal would have made the water district a partner in the project, and the two entities would have jointly built the pipeline to the Cadiz Valley. Now, the company plans to build the pipeline without the water district and charge clients for water storage.

Aqueduct Rights

Cadiz Inc. owns 44,000 acres of land and related groundwater rights in the Cadiz, Fenner and Piute valleys of eastern San Bernardino County. It grows grape and citrus crops.

Stoddard said the company has been talking with several water providers that have rights or potential rights to water in the aqueduct and could benefit from the company's storage project.

California's "water-wheeling" laws give water providers the right to move supplies through the aqueduct, Stoddard said. The laws are similar to rules that allow various telephone companies to use the same transmission lines, he said.

Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir said the district has not seen a proposal from the Cadiz company. To access the aqueduct, capacity must be available, he said.

The Cadiz clients also would have to pay access and stewardship fees, he said.

Fern Steiner, San Diego County Water Authority chairwoman, said the Cadiz venture possibly could be used to store Colorado River water the agency purchases from the Imperial Irrigation District.

"Our board should look at the Cadiz project," she said. "We should explore all possibilities to find new water sources."

Stoddard said he expects the pipeline to be operating in about three years, allowing 18 months for environmental reviews under the purview of the San Bernardino County planning agency.

It would take roughly the same amount of time to build the pipeline, he said.

Environmental Concerns

In 2001 and 2002, environmentalists who opposed the project said they feared that pumping from the Cadiz Valley would deplete natural groundwater that feeds area springs. The springs and groundwater are necessary to sustain desert bighorn sheep and various plants and other wildlife, they said.

Terry Wold, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club's Inland chapter, said the group will continue to oppose the pipeline and storage project.

Wold said that besides concern about the springs, she is worried about contaminating the pure native groundwater with the saltier Colorado River water.

Elden Hughes, of Joshua Tree, former chairman of the environmental group's desert committee, said the environment would be damaged by construction of large-scale pumping stations.

"It they want to suck the aquifer dry, we will do our damndest to stop them," Hughes said.

Club members will write letters, lobby elected officials and, if necessary, sue to stop the project, he said.

Stoddard said native groundwater would be used but that levels would be carefully tracked to ensure the environment is protected.

He added that using the Arizona & California Railroad Co. right-of-way would be less damaging to the environment than the previous plan that routed the pipeline across public land overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

"The more this project is examined, the more environmentally benign it becomes," Stoddard said.