July 18, 2012

Cadiz water project progresses

By Janet Zimmerman

A final environmental report has been issued for a long-running and controversial project that proposes pumping water from an ancient Mojave Desert aquifer and exporting it to cities in California, which is now the subject of a lawsuit.

The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project would provide a new water source for about 400,000 people by extracting the groundwater in an open valley between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park in eastern San Bernardino County.

A public hearing on the environmental impact report is set for Wednesday, July 25, in Orange County and via video conferencing in Joshua Tree.

The company, Cadiz Inc., says the $225 million project would make use of water that would otherwise be lost to evaporation, delivering up to 50,000 acre-feet per year to water agencies, including Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County. A second phase also would provide underground storage for surplus Colorado River water.

But environmentalists say the pumping would cause a drop in the water table that would dry up springs supporting bighorn sheep and other wildlife. They have also raised concerns that it could cause dust storms on nearby dry lake beds, adversely affect air quality, overdraw the water table and alter the flow of groundwater beneath the Mojave Preserve.

The 1,664-page environmental impact report was prepared by Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County, the lead agency for the permitting process under the California Environmental Quality Act that also is a potential buyer of the water. The other interested agencies are Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Claremont, Suburban Water Systems in Covina, Golden State Water Company in San Dimas and California Water Service Co. in San Jose.

The report released this week addresses comments from nearly 200 individuals and state and federal agencies. Many of them reiterated their earlier worries about the project, particularly that the recharge rate for the basin was overestimated.

In May, San Bernardino County supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding that laid out the review process for the controversial project and gave the county authority to approve or deny a permit for the project. The Santa Margarita Water District was named as the lead agency responsible for reviewing and approving the environmental impact report.

Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc., which operates a brine mining operation at two dry lakes adjacent to Cadiz Inc.’s property, has filed suit against San Bernardino County and Santa Margarita Water District.

The company claims the two violated state environmental law by not making the county the lead agency, since it has the principle authority for approving the project, said Robert Bower, Tetra’s attorney. Tetra also claims the county violated its own Desert Groundwater Management Ordinance.

“What is Santa Margarita Water District’s approval authority here? How can Santa Margarita Water District, which is over 200 miles away from this project and is going to benefit from it, objectively weigh the benefits of the project against the environmental cost?” Bower asked.

A drop in the water table of even one foot would harm the mining of the salt from sediment in Bristol and Cadiz dry lake beds, the company said in comments included in the environmental report.

The county’s spokesman, David Wert, could not be reached for comment.

Scott Slater, Cadiz’s president and general counsel, said in a statement that his company stands by the project’s “extensive monitoring program, the county’s enforcement role and believes this case has no merit.”

Cadiz project
Public hearings on the final environmental impact report for the Cadiz groundwater pumping project will be held July 25 at 6:30 p.m. at:

Norman P. Murray Community Center, 24932 Veterans Way, Mission Viejo

Copper Mountain College, Bell Center Community Room (via video conference), 6162 Rotary Way, Joshua Tree.

For information, go to www.smwd.com, or call 949-459-6400