September 30, 2012

Cadiz water project faces federal, local hurdles

The Metropolitan Water District, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, environmental rules and lawsuits could stand in the way of the controversial Cadiz water project.

Water from a pilot well at the Cadiz project pours into a spreading basin in the Mojave Desert. If approved, the water project would move underground water 200 miles west to Southern California suburbs. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times / May 8, 2012)

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

Plans to sell groundwater from beneath the Mojave Desert to Southern California suburbs are likely to pick up another approval Monday when Cadiz Inc.'s proposal goes before the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

But the company's highest hurdles lie ahead.

The project faces mounting legal challenges, difficult negotiations with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California over use of the Colorado River Aqueduct, opposition from California's senior U.S. senator and the possibility that it may yet be forced to undergo an exhaustive review under federal environmental law.

"I think the biggest obstacle Cadiz is going to have is sitting in Washington, D.C., named Dianne Feinstein," water district board member Brett Barbre said. "She is committed to do everything to make sure this doesn't happen.... I don't see how politically it gets done. And financially I don't see how this water pencils out."

At least some Metropolitan Water District board members have not forgotten that Cadiz sued the agency when the water district dropped out of a groundwater project the company proposed a decade ago. They are skeptical that the project will qualify for the MWD subsidies Cadiz intends to seek. And they are concerned about the presence of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, in the groundwater that Cadiz would have to transport in the river aqueduct, which the Metropolitan Water District owns and operates.

Scott Slater, a well known water attorney and president of Cadiz, has expressed confidence that an agreement can be struck with the MWD. Cadiz Chief Executive Keith Brackpool has no shortage of political connections, notably his friendship with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who appoints the city's representatives on the MWD board.

Cadiz has "been dealt what I would consider to be one debilitating blow after another. And they have shown tremendous resilience," said MWD board member Larry Dick. Nonetheless, he added, "my feeling is that none of this is going to be easy, none of it."

Dick and Barbre represent the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which has to sign off on the Cadiz project because it oversees the Metropolitan Water District's imports to Orange County, the location of Cadiz's biggest potential customer, the Santa Margarita Water District.

A looming state standard for hexavalent chromium, a toxic heavy metal that is naturally occurring in the aquifer Cadiz plans to tap, could prompt the MWD to require expensive treatment of the groundwater before it is pumped into the Colorado aqueduct.

Slater has said he hopes to lessen costs by undertaking limited treatment in the well field and blending the groundwater in the aqueduct with river water. That would also provide a benefit to the MWD, he has suggested, because the groundwater has lower levels of corrosive salts than the river supplies.

"It's going to be a negotiation over benefits," Slater said in July. "Our water is a lot softer."

But pumping tainted groundwater into the aqueduct would be "a nightmare scenario," Barbre said. "They're going to have to treat it. I guarantee you our board is not going to say, 'Oh yeah, it's lower in salts, and maybe it's higher in chromium 6.... We'll take it. No problem.'"

John Foley, chairman of the MWD board, also questioned Cadiz's interest in agency subsidies that the company intends to pursue to lower the price of its water. In one program, the MWD funds the development of local water resources, including recycling projects or groundwater cleanup. The other is a complicated federal program that allows Colorado River contractors such as the MWD to gain credits for river supplies by introducing non-river water into their systems.

But the Cadiz project is 200 miles east of the MWD's coastal service area. "It's not really a local project," Foley said. "I would think that would have a difficult time getting through the board."

Ditto for using Cadiz groundwater to obtain a river credit. "It's a little stretch of the imagination. It was never intended to" work that way, Foley said.

Cadiz has enjoyed a warmer reception from San Bernardino County supervisors, who have received nearly $80,000 in combined campaign contributions from the corporation since 2007. The board approved an agreement with Cadiz earlier this year, and on Monday, it is expected to OK a pumping management and monitoring plan. The project has also been approved by the Santa Margarita Water District, the lead in the state environmental review process.

The management plan gives the county greater enforcement authority than an earlier draft. It also sets a floor for groundwater withdrawal, allowing the pumping to lower the water table beneath the well field no more than 80 feet. "The key provision now is the floor that has been added by the county," said Christian Marsh, the county's outside counsel in the matter.

But the plan still allows Cadiz to extract more water than is naturally recharged, drawing down the desert aquifer by slightly more than 1 million acre feet over the 50-year life of the project. (An acre foot is enough to supply two households for a year).

Critics say the management plan is full of loopholes that will make it tough to prove environmental harm is a result of the pumping and also gives the project too much leeway in measuring the floor. "There are so many places along here where it's just so easy to say, 'That's not us,'" said Debra Hughson, science advisor to the nearby Mojave National Preserve.

The preserve was established by Feinstein's Desert Protection Act in 1994 and the California Democrat has demanded federal review of the Cadiz project, which is surrounded by public land. The U.S. Interior Department is considering whether the company's proposed pipeline route along a federally granted railroad right-of-way will require a federal permit.

The number of lawsuits filed against the project has grown to five. The plaintiffs include major environmental groups, a company that owns an industrial salt mining operation near the Cadiz property, and a labor union that argues the project's environmental documents failed to account for the possible dangers of munitions debris left in the area during World War II military exercises.