October 1, 2012

County supervisors approve Cadiz desert water pumping plan

Ruth Musser-Lopez, a former council member from Needles, speaks during a protest of the groundwater management plan for the Cadiz project, before the San Bernardino County Supervisors meeting, on Monday, October 1, 2012. (KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)


An ambitious private water project that would draw water from deep under the Mojave Desert and pipe it across California was given the go-ahead Monday, Oct. 1, by San Bernardino County supervisors.

Opponents and supporters spoke for five hours during a special hearing on the controversial Cadiz project, which would pump an average of 50,000 acre-feet per year from beneath a remote valley south of the Mojave National Preserve and pipe it to cities across the state.

The vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Neil Derry dissenting.

“My constituents have been very vocal about not taking water out of the desert,” Derry said.

The supervisor said he also opposes the Santa Margarita Water District in Mission Viejo acting as lead agency on the project instead of the county. The Orange County water agency has agreed to buy water from Cadiz Inc., along with Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County, and five other agencies as far north as San Jose.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt cited several benefits for the county, including a hedge against uncertain supplies from Northern California and new jobs in a region that needs them.

Part of the agreement reserves 20 percent of whatever is pumped for the county, plus 25,000 acre-feet, he said.

“How much would it cost us to build a project that could access that much water?” Mitzelfelt asked. “I see a benefit at a very reasonable cost.”

Numerous representatives of the manufacturing industry, pipe layers, surveyors and the Building Industry Association said it would create thousands of jobs and bring water supply reliability that would boost the economy by billions of dollars.

Environmentalists said the pumping would cause a drop in the water table that would dry up springs supporting bighorn sheep and other wildlife, could cause dust storms on nearby dry lake beds that would adversely affect air quality, and overdraw the water table.

The board approved an amended version of a management plan to govern project operations.

The plan includes a water-withdrawal threshold that, if reached, would allow the county to shut down pumping from the Cadiz Valley.

The 80-foot floor was established because the county doubts Cadiz Inc.’s assertion that natural recharge — the rate at which rain and snow replenish the water — is 32,000 acre-feet per year, said Christian Marsh, the county’s special counsel.

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed recharge at 5,000 acre-feet per year.

“If the recharge is only 5,000 acre-feet per year and they pump 50,000, they’ll hit the (80-foot) floor within 10 years,” Marsh said.

The threshold eliminates widespread worries about the aquifer’s rate of recharge, he said. The county also will monitor vegetation in the area and watch for sinking land, among other indicators of potential harm, he said.

Many project opponents complained about the threshold.

“By 80 feet, the damage will be done,” said Michael Valdez, a lawyer with the UC Irvine Environmental Law Clinic.

Several speakers alleged campaign donations by Cadiz Inc. had influenced the supervisors’ decisions in favor of the project. From 2007 to June 30, 2012, Cadiz has donated more than $107,000 to supervisors and candidates for the office, according to county records.

Among them: Mitzelfelt received $48,100; Gary Ovitt, $11,745; Josie Gonzales, $8,450; Janice Rutherford, $5,999; and Derry, $5,250.

Supervisors did not respond to calls from the public to address how much money they have received from the company.

This is the second incarnation of the Cadiz project. Since it was first proposed in 1999, Cadiz general counsel Scott Slater said his company has downsized the project, spent $10 million to drill wells and map the area and change the pipeline route.

“The project has made a promise to conserve millions of acre-feet of groundwater without harm to others and the environment and, with its action today, the county will ensure that this promise is fulfilled,” Slater said.

It will be years before the $225 million project is operational because the company must still reach an agreement with Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to use its pipelines. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is critical of the project. In addition, it may require a federal environmental review.

Meanwhile, two lawsuits are pending, one by the National Parks Conservation Association and other environmental groups, and the other from Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc., which runs a brine mining operation at two dry lakes near the 45,000 acres that Cadiz owns.