December 7, 2011

Zombie Water Projects (Just when you thought they were really dead...)

The Cadiz groundwater mining project

Peter Gleick, Contributor
CEO Pacific Institute

Zombies are big business, in more ways than one. Zombie books, movies, costumes, make-up, computer games, and more are probably worth billions to our economy, not to mention the value of extra sales of axes, chainsaws, and shotguns to people who never hunt or cut down trees.

But not all zombies are fictional, and some are potentially really dangerous – at least to our pocketbooks and environment. These include zombie water projects: large, costly water projects that are proposed, killed for one reason or another, and are brought back to life, even if the project itself is socially, politically, economically, and environmentally unjustified.

The Cadiz groundwater mining project is one zombie water project that has been beaten down for a variety of reasons but keeps rearing its ugly head.

An effort to turn a public water resource into a private good is the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project (or the Cadiz groundwater mining project). This project is the brainchild of another private investment group and hopes to mine groundwater from an aquifer located in the eastern Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County.

This project is unsustainable: it takes more groundwater out than nature recharges. Over time, this will result in disappearance of surface springs and ephemeral water in desert lake beds, and a declining groundwater level. In other words, the project exchanges public goods for private gain.

An earlier version of the project, not much different from the current one, was killed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California because of environmental and economic concerns, but like a water zombie, Cadiz has come back to life.

A new draft Environmental Impact Statement has just been released, but beware: it is 305 megabytes in size, which makes it pretty much impossible for normal citizens to download it and read it to find out if it needs to be tackled with an axe or a chainsaw.

There are many smart water investments to be made, in industrial and agricultural water-efficiency technologies, better wastewater treatment plants capable of producing the highest quality waters, improved piping and distribution systems, lower energy desalination systems, improved monitoring tools, low-water-using crop types, and much more. But wasting precious time and scarce money on a water zombie will not lead to a sustainable water future.

Keep those chainsaws lubed and fueled.