September 20, 2013

Plans unveiled for Mojave Desert tourist train, museum

As part of its plan to mine underground water supplies, Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. is proposing a tourist steam engine, museum and cultural center in the Mojave Desert.

Press Enterprise

Cadiz Inc., the Los Angeles-based company proposing a water mining operation in the Mojave Desert, released plans Friday, Sept. 20, for steam train excursions and a museum, but environmentalists called it a ploy to avoid federal review of its groundwater pumping project.

The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project would extract groundwater from beneath 45,000 acres that Cadiz owns south of the Marble Mountains, 40 miles east of Twentynine Palms. The area lies between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park in eastern San Bernardino County.

Environmental groups have filed lawsuits to block the $225 million development, which would provide water for about 400,000 people served by six water districts throughout California, including Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County.

The pipeline would run along 43 miles of track owned by the Arizona & California Railroad Co. Because part of the railroad right-of-way crosses federal lands, environmentalists say the project is subject to federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which would evaluate environmental impacts.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, have called for a federal review of the project and questioned its impacts on the Mojave National Preserve.

To avoid a government evaluation, the Department of the Interior requires that the pipeline along the right-of-way must have a direct impact on the rail system.

On Friday, Cadiz announced its agreement with the railroad to use its tracks. As part of the agreement, Cadiz will provide water from the project to power the trains, wash dirty freight cars run by Arizona & California, and supply fire hydrants along 35 wooden railroad trestles, Cadiz President Scott Slater said.

Seth Shteir California desert senior representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, accused Cadiz of concocting the tourist train idea to avoid scrutiny by the U.S. Geological Survey of its inflated recharge rates in the ancient aquifer.

Cadiz plans to pump an average of 50,000 acre-feet per year – more than 16 billion gallons – from beneath the remote valley.

In environmental documents, Cadiz says the recharge rate is 32,500 acre-feet per year, but independent estimates have placed recharge at 2,000 to 10,000 acre-feet per year.

The National Park Service has said the project would likely drain surrounding springs that supply water for wildlife.

Slater said an earlier version of the pumping project, which was larger and more impactful, already cleared federal study. The previous version crossed open public lands, but this one was intentionally placed on an active railroad right-of-way to avoid environmental impacts.

“What they’re looking for is duplicative. They’re interested in shopping until they can get somebody who agrees with them,” Slater said.

The company said the Cadiz Southeastern Railway would also draw in tourist dollars with a depot-style museum and cultural center on the Cadiz property that would include information on the local desert and railroad history. Slater wants to make it a destination.

One of the steam engines would be locomotive 3751, built in 1927 and housed at California Steel Industries in Fontana. The restored engine is owned by the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society. Cadiz is also negotiating to buy two engines and rail cars that can be opened up to provide star gazing, Slater said.

“The steam train is an original fixture of the Cadiz area - an important historical asset intimately connected to the local culture – and offers a rewarding way to invest locally and promote the unique desert environment,” Slater said in a statement. “As a 30-year member of the Mojave Desert community, we have long appreciated the area’s majesty and appeal and are proud to diversify our business with this exciting new venture.”

The Cadiz railroad would operate on existing tracks on a portion of the Arizona & California Railroad Co. between Parker, Ariz. and Cadiz, with water stops in the California desert communities of Milligan, Chubbuck, Rice and Vidal.

The Mojave Desert Route, off historic Route 66, “provides sweeping views of the vast desert wilderness, mountainous terrain and the Colorado River,” the company said.

Brad Ovitt, a senior vice president for Genesee & Wyoming Inc. in Darien, Conn., which owns the Arizona & California railroad, said the track-sharing deal is a first in this region for his company. Terms of the agreement are confidential.