May 1, 2012

County outlines groundwater project agreement


San Bernardino County supervisors approved an agreement Tuesday spelling out the review process for a controversial proposal to draw water from ancient aquifers in the Mojave Desert.

The agreement provides for county oversight of the $225 million project in the Cadiz Valley, about 40 miles east of Twentynine Palms, that would involve building 44 miles of pipeline to move surplus water from the Colorado Aqueduct to an underground basin the size of Rhode Island.

The water rights under 34,000 acres belong to Cadiz Inc., which also wants to tap water from beneath nearby dry lake beds that it says would otherwise be lost to evaporation.

The Cadiz project has been rejected and reworked since it was first proposed in 1997.

Environmentalists say it would deplete ancient groundwater that feeds area springs and sustains local wildlife. One-third of the aquifer sits below the Mojave National Preserve.

Cadiz estimates that about 2 million acre feet of water that flows downhill to dry lakes in the watershed is lost to evaporation. The project would collect 50,000 acre feet a year to local water agencies, including possibly some in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“It is in essence by definition a conservation project,” said Scott Slater, president and general counsel for Cadiz.

During the 31/2-hour hearing, environmentalists and residents in the Mojave Valley urged the county not to allow the project to go forward. They questioned Cadiz’s studies that natural recharge of the aquifers will make up for water that is pumped out.

“The Cadiz project sets a terrible precedent as water, a public resource, is privatized and then sold back to the public,” said Victoria Fuller, a member of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Supervisors also heard from local vendors and contractors who are among those who would benefit from the $874 million that Cadiz projects would pump into the economy over four years. Slater said the company plans to rely on vendors in the county for 80 percent of its materials, such as steel, pipe and drilling equipment, and have county residents make up 50 percent of its employees.

But opponents of the project noted that an Orange County water district, the Santa Margarita Water District, will get the largest share of the water collected from the aquifers. The district is also the lead agency responsible for reviewing and approving the environmental impact report for the project.

Christian Marsh, an attorney hired by the county to advise on the Cadiz project, said the agreement approved by the board sets up a framework for a review process that gives the county authority to approve or deny Cadiz a permit for the project.

Slater said he expected Cadiz would be back before the board for a vote on the project permit by late summer.

Supervisors approved the agreement on a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Neil Derry in opposition. He said he was concerned about whether county residents would have enough of a voice in the approval process before the Santa Margarita Water District.