May 4, 2012

Desert water plan upsets some

A sign marks the property in the Mojave Desert where Cadiz Inc. farms grapes and citrus, and hopes to sell water from a giant aquifer under its land.


Food is generally not allowed in the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors chambers.

But one morning a decade and a half ago, crates of picture-perfect green grapes were carried ceremoniously down the steps and presented to the board.

The point being made by officials of Cadiz Inc. was that their farm — in the remote Mojave Desert — was growing over a pristine pool of underground water that could produce such bounty.

At the time, Cadiz Inc. was fighting a proposed landfill it feared would contaminate the untouched aquifer.

The dump plan ultimately fell apart. But what Cadiz Inc. was really protecting that day wasn’t its farm. It was a multimillion-dollar plan to sell the water to the giant Metropolitan Water District.

The water-sale plan, too, fell apart a few years later.

Desert residents and environmentalists had raised alarms that extracting 150,000 acre-feet of water annually would turn Cadiz Valley into another Owens Valley, the dust bowl east of the Sierra created by Los Angeles slaking its metropolitan thirst.

By 2001, MWD backed away from the Cadiz plan.

End of story? Nope.

Cadiz Inc. is back, but with a different partner: the Santa Margarita Water District, of south Orange County.
Cadiz scaled back the amount of water it will draw to 50,000 acre-feet per year. It won’t replenish the aquifer with Colorado River water.

And instead of running a pipeline across pristine desert, it secured 43 miles of railroad right-of-way to carry it, said Cadiz spokeswoman Courtney Degener.

But the environmental concerns remain.

Desert residents and advocates still worry that pumping out water will dry up existing wells and springs, parch plants, deprive wildlife of watering holes and create a dust bowl.

The National Parks Conservation Association hired a consultant to examine the draft environmental report and found flaws, said the association’s California desert representative Seth Shteir.

“We believe the recharge (from natural rainfall) is lower than the EIR says: about half of 32,500 acre-feet per year,” Shteir said.

Of equal concern is that the Orange County water district is conducting the environmental review of the project. Critics believe San Bernardino County, where the aquifer is located, should have done the review.
Santa Margarita Water District has a vested interest in approving the project, since it will benefit from buying the water, Shteir said.

It meets mostly in Orange County, which makes it difficult for desert residents to attend, said Victoria Fuller, of the Joshua Tree Community Association. “It’s $50 to $75 in gas money just to get there.”

San Bernardino County could have fought to be lead agency, said CEO Greg Devereaux. But rather than risk losing and being cut out entirely, the county last week agreed with Cadiz and the water district that the county will oversee and enforce environmental rules.

The county will set conditions for the project, and be empowered to halt it if harm to the environment is done, said Dan Ferons, chief engineer for Santa Margarita.