February 10, 2012

O.C. agency revives failed desert water plan


A plan to boost water supplies using a Mojave desert aquifer is being floated by an Orange County water agency -- nearly 10 years after a similar plan for the same aquifer failed to gain approval, in part because of stiff opposition from a U.S. senator and environmental activists.

The Santa Margarita Water District says its $225 million plan for the Cadiz Valley aquifer is different from a Metropolitan Water District plan scuttled in 2002, and is designed to reduce potential environmental concerns.

The Santa Margarita Water District says its $225 million plan for the Cadiz Valley aquifer is different from a Metropolitan Water District plan scuttled in 2002, and is designed to reduce potential environmental concerns.

But already, opposition to the new project is stirring. And U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, who strongly opposed the previous effort, says the new plan might pose "similar risks."

The new Cadiz project would not begin with injection of water into the aquifer for storage, as proposed in the old plan.

Instead, it would use wells to harvest water flowing beneath dry lake beds that would otherwise evaporate into the atmosphere.

A later phase of the project could involve storing water as well, but that is not part of the initial plan, said Dan Ferons, chief engineer and director of operations at the Santa Margarita Water District.

"This project steps back away from that, and puts that as a second phase," Ferons said. "The first phase of this project really looks at the concept of conserving water that would otherwise evaporate through the dry lakes -- and how much water can you pump to balance that, and not affect the environment out there."

The agency's environmental analysis, opened to public comment for an additional 30 days Friday, shows that collection wells for the groundwater could be dug deep enough to avoid disturbing natural springs fed by surface water, and to avoid the root zones of plants.

The idea is to increase water supply options for the district, which, unlike water agencies in northern and central Orange County, has no deep-water aquifer to draw from.

"We propose it to be a 50-year project, so we have the ability to increase the reliability of the water supply without causing environmental impacts," Ferons said. "For us it means we can reduce dependence on the Bay Delta and the Colorado. This basin is independent of the Colorado River."

Another worry for environmental activists in the earlier Cadiz project was the digging of a pipeline across undisturbed federal desert lands.

The new project's pipeline would be built along an existing railroad right-of-way to avoid that concern as well.

But even with the environmental concessions and the emphasis on capturing water, not storing it, the proposal is provoking new environmental concerns.

Former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, who has taken a strong stand on many environmental issues, says the new project is "worse" than the old, which would have diverted water from the Colorado River for storage in the Cadiz aquifer.

The Metropolitan Water District board voted down the project in 2002, citing likely reductions in supply from the Colorado that could make the storage plan untenable.

Some board members also expressed concern about the financial condition of the aquifer's owner, Cadiz Inc.

"This one is only about removing water," Cook said. "To me it's just mind-boggling anyone would propose something like this. It's like pulling money out of the bank and never putting any money in. It's like eating your seed corn."

She is also concerned that, though the water evaporating off the dry lakes does not pool at the surface, the moisture itself could have an ecological role that would be disrupted by drawing the groundwater away.

Similar concerns were expressed by Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association, who also opposes the project, known as the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project.

"It's a bit ironic that the word 'conservation' is in the title of the project, because conservation implies saving something for future generations," Shteir said. "But what this project really is, is an aggressive groundwater mining scheme."

Shteir said he hired an independent hydrologist, who is concerned that both the water district's estimate of groundwater flowing into the aquifer from nearby mountains and its estimate of how much the basin will discharge above the dry lakes could be exaggerated.

And he says he is concerned about potential effects on the nearby Mojave National Preserve.

Scott Slater, president of Cadiz Inc., the owner of the aquifer, said the estimates of water flow into the aquifer, known as recharge, were performed by top firms, and were modeled for far lower amounts than expected so potential environmental effects could be gauged.

"The draft environmental impact report concludes that even if the recharge is only 5,000 acre feet, off by 85 percent, there is still not a single, not one, significant impact associated with the project," Slater said.

A statement from Feinstein, D-Calif., in response to questions about the project did not say she was opposed, but it did strike a note uncertainty.

"When the Cadiz project was first considered in 2001, I felt the groundwater extraction plan threatened the Mojave National Preserve and the surrounding desert," the statement said. "I remain concerned about this newest proposal and that it poses similar risks. I will reserve judgment until I have the chance to fully review the proposal, but I remain skeptical.”

Santa Margarita spokeswoman Michele Miller said the state's environmental review process will further assess potential environmental effects, and could bring further modifications if needed.

"We're doing this to see if it's a viable project," she said.