June 7, 2009

Underground water storage plan draws fresh concern

City News Service
The Desert Sun

A Los Angeles company with huge landholdings in the California deserts has resurrected its controversial plan to store vast amounts of Colorado River water under the ground, for public agencies to use in dry spells.

The plan by Cadiz Inc. echoes a 1999 proposal that prompted fears of “water mining” in the large desert valley north of the Joshua Tree National Monument. The critics said Cadiz would be able to overdraft amounts of existing groundwater from fragile desert soils while not replacing all of it or distributing the new supplies over the entire area.

But the new proposal has already been endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a critical water conservation tool during an epic drought.

Cadiz said late Friday it has letters of intent from three municipalities and a large private water company to, in essence, rent water storage facilities from Cadiz in underground basins lying beneath its vast landholdings in the Mojave Desert. The company did not state which government agencies had signed the letters of intent.

Cadiz did say, however, that it had signed a San Dimas-based private water company, Golden State Water Company, as a potential client. Golden State has customers in five Southland counties.

A similar proposal that had the backing of the massive Metropolitan Water District was made in 1999, but the district pulled out in 2002. Environmentalists objected, saying the proposed 44-mile pipeline, wells and injection facilities would mar the desert and harm endangered animals like desert tortoises.

Back in 2002, desert residents said the groundwater storage project would also draw down existing underground supplies, causing desert springs to dry up and endangering bighorn sheep. They also predicted massive sandstorms would likely occur as the Cadiz Dry Lake lost the scant groundwater that keeps the salt and dust in a crust.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked hard questions about the project and noted that most of the aquifer that would be used by Cadiz lies under public land that has since been added to the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Monument.

On Friday, Cadiz said it has picked up an early endorsement from California's governor, who reportedly told Cadiz that he hailed the idea as an “innovative project, utilizing sophisticated water conservation practices.”

Schwarzenegger noted that the underground water storage concept would allow water to be banked without losing liquid assets to evaporation.

The underground aquifer that would be inflated with imported water would be under the Twentynine Palms area.