April 28, 2014

Cadiz water project offers many benefits

Guest Commentary

By Scott Slater
San Bernardino Sun

While it is a common tactic for project opponents to distort facts and instill fear, everyone should be disappointed in recent a guest commentary by Bill Withuhn, which attacks the Cadiz Water Project and its railroad-related benefits.

Withuhn is a railroad professional, yet in his piece, he denies historical fact: Steam locomotives are firmly embedded in the history of the Mojave — not “an overheated absurdity.” Towns like Cadiz were founded by railroads as water stops for steam locomotives carrying passengers and supplies across the desert during the expansion of the West. Appreciation for steam trains carries on here today, so plans to integrate a steam train into our project are based on certainty that “if we build it they will come.”

After all, the planned steam locomotive route between Cadiz and Parker, Ariz., is centrally located to the desert’s most frequented destinations. Parker receives 750,000 visitors per year, Joshua Tree National Park has nearly two times that many, and annual visitor spending in the California deserts is $5.8 billion.

The truth fared even worse when the piece turned its attention to the water supply reliability Cadiz will offer. The project will capture and conserve groundwater that is being lost to evaporation from a vast Mojave Desert aquifer system, providing a new supply for 400,000 water users across Southern California. Because the piece aims to further the “us vs. them” fears worked up by project opponents, it stokes the familiar but false claim that Cadiz would only serve the Coast. In fact, 20 percent of project water is reserved for San Bernardino County and these local benefits cannot be denied, with Northern California and Colorado River water supplies becoming increasingly unreliable.

The piece also repeats the unfounded claim that the project has avoided environmental review. In fact, it was thoroughly reviewed under the nation’s toughest environmental law — the California Environmental Quality Act. A 6,000-page environmental impact report (EIR) found it would have no significant impacts on desert flora, fauna, water users or businesses, leading to project approval by two public agencies including San Bernardino County.

The commentary also omits that the county adopted a groundwater management plan to ensure the project’s pumping is sustainable. The plan requires data from 100 new groundwater monitoring installations be published online for public review, and gives the county independent power to shut the project down if any unexpected impact occurs.

It appears the article’s true intent is to shop for a second opinion on the project from D.C. regulators. That explains why it mischaracterizes our plans to place the project’s water conveyance pipeline within an active railroad right-of-way in order to avoid impacts to desert lands. It is commonplace in the Mojave and nationwide for railroads to lease their property to third parties for uses like water, fiber optic, gas and oil pipelines. Federal regulators have allowed railroads to do this with without their involvement. And it undeniably serves the public’s interest to tuck such infrastructure into already disturbed routes.

The project also will provide benefits to the host railroad that cannot be dismissed, including fire suppression. According to a 2013 California Public Utilities Commission report, increased crude oil movement by rail is a significant concern in the railroad industry today. Withuhn is no doubt aware of the exponential increase in movement of crude oil by railcar and the related fire risk along rail corridors, as evidenced by the 2013 oil train derailment in Canada that killed 47 people. Cadiz’s offer to provide water for remote-controlled fire suppression systems on the railroad’s wooden trestles is an investment that a railroad expert should applaud, not dismiss.

The Cadiz project was publicly reviewed and approved under the toughest environmental law, will be locally enforced and provide long-term benefits to the desert and railroad communities. To imply otherwise is the only “overheated absurdity.”

Scott Slater is president and CEO of Cadiz, Inc.