May 26, 2012

County Okays Memorandum Of Understanding For Desert Water Project

by Venturi
San Bernardino Sentinel

The proposed Cadiz Water Project passed a significant milestone this week when the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding outlining a review process for the plan to extract massive quantities of water from beneath the eastern Mojave Desert.

The so-called Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project is a $536.25 million proposal by Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. to sink 34 wells into the desert and construct a 44-mile pipeline along a railroad right-of-way until it meets up with the aqueduct that carries Colorado River water to the Los Angeles and Orange County metropolitan areas. That system will be used to draw an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water from the Cadiz Aquifer for use by the Santa Margarita Water District, the second largest water agency in Orange County; the Three Valleys Water District, which provides water to the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley, and Eastern San Gabriel Valley; the Golden State Water Company, which serves several communities in Southern California, including Claremont; Suburban Water Systems, which serves Covina, West Covina and La Mirada; and the Jurupa Community Services District, which serves Mira Loma in Riverside County.

The Cadiz Valley lies just south of the Marble Mountains and northeast of the Sheep Hole Mountains near the National Trails Highway. Cadiz is home to a former railroad stop along the Santa Fe line, 17 miles east of Amboy and 70 miles from Needles. Cadiz, Inc. owns or has options on 45,000 acres in and around the Cadiz Valley, 9,600 acres of which is zoned for agricultural use. That company operates an organic table grape, citrus, melon, pepper, squash, asparagus and bean growing farm on 500 acres in Cadiz, utilizing roughly 1,965 acre-feet of water per year to sustain that operation.

Cadiz has made a disputed claim to the water rights beneath 34,000 acres it has tied up in the area, and its plan calls for tapping that water supply, which is connected to other neighboring aquifers beneath land not controlled by Cadiz, Inc. Cadiz maintains it has the right to pump that water and sell it as it sees fit.

Environmentalists and many residents of the East Mojave are opposed to the project, and they maintain the project will deprive the already parched desert of its most precious resource, wreak ecological devastation to the environment and allow Cadiz, Inc. to appropriate water rights it does not legally possess to commandeer water and thereby privatize a public resource.

Cadiz has arranged for the Santa Margarita Water District, which lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley and will be the recipient of the lion’s share of the water to be obtained under the plan, to serve as the lead agency in the environmental certification of the project. Critics of the project say this is an unacceptable conflict of interest and have already cited shortcomings in the environmental impact report, claiming that document does not accurately describe or provide a mitigation for the impact the drafting of water will have on adjacent aquifers. Environmentalists maintain that ultimately the desert’s springs, which support the region’s fragile wildlife, will dry up if such vigorous pumping is initiated. During a three-and-a-half hour hearing on May 1, they pleaded with the county board of supervisors not to have the county enter into a memorandum of understanding with Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District relative to the project.

Other critics of the project maintain that diverting the region’s water resources to Orange and Los Angeles Counties will sharply curtail or eliminate any future development potential in the East Mojave.
Supervisors at the May 1 hearing were told by Scott Slater, the president and general counsel for Cadiz, Inc., that the project would conserve water. They also heard from local contractors and vendors who stand to make money by working on or supplying materials for the pipeline to be constructed.

According to Christian Marsh, a contract attorney retained by the county to advise it on the Cadiz project, the memorandum of understanding does not give final approval to the project but puts a regime in place by which the project application being processed through the Santa Margarita Water District can be reviewed by the county, and provides the county with the authority to make an ultimate veto of the permitting of the project. He said the approval of that permit will likely be heard by the end of the summer.

Supervisor Neil Derry, expressing skepticism that the Santa Margarita Water District would give proper weight to the input of San Bernardino County residents and interests during the approval process for the project, was the sole dissent in a 4-1 vote to approve the memorandum of understanding.