April 25, 2014

Mojave region’s public being railroaded


By Bill Withuhn
San Bernardino Sun

You want your scarce groundwater sent to Orange County and L.A.? Read on.

It’s not a desert mirage: A proposed water project stands to create irreversible damage by pumping groundwater from underneath the Mojave Desert and sending it in a new pipeline to supply the Los Angeles/Orange County region. Project proponent Cadiz Inc. has requested the Interior Department waive standard federal review.

People in desert country might applaud waiving a federal law — at first. But the Cadiz Inc. project threatens desert residents, ranchers and local businesses by putting their groundwater in jeopardy. The project would also threaten the National Chloride Company’s brine mining operation. According to a local economist, pipeline construction might benefit San Bernardino County employment, but for just four years. Here then and then gone.

The project would pump 50,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Mojave Aquifer for 50 years. Starting near the town of Cadiz, the proposed pipeline would use the right-of-way of an existing railroad for about 45 miles till reaching the Colorado River Aqueduct near Freda.

Cadiz Inc. calls the pipeline a “railroad” project rather than a water project. Really?

This sleight of hand is bizarre. Cadiz Inc. wants to piggyback on a law that helps California businesses that use freight rail. Under that law, a railroad through public lands can undertake improvements within its established right-of-way without federal review.

The claims by Cadiz are a gross distortion. Its project would irreversibly harm public lands that taxpayers have paid for decades to protect. That includes state wilderness areas and the Mojave National Preserve — the third-largest national park site in the lower 48 states. Threatened are desert springs and many rare desert species, not to mention the livelihoods of local ranchers and business owners who never use the railroad. Cadiz foresees a $1-2 billion profit over a half-century, by pumping the Mojave Aquifer into overdraft.

In 2011, the Interior Department published a review concluding that a railroad’s authority to undertake activities impacting public land is limited to projects directly affecting rail transportation.

In its attempt to claim its project furthers a “railroad purpose,” Cadiz modified its proposal to install dozens of water hydrants all along the 45 miles of track for emergencies, construct a parallel access road, and provide water for weed control and “washing rail cars.”

A suitable road along the railway already exists — a public road, also used for rail safety inspections and access for track work. Water for mixing with approved weedkiller is a minor use limited to inside the railroad’s right-of-way (so no help with tumbleweeds), and only modestly useful in desert lands. Washing rail freight cars is, frankly, absurd. Nearly all freight cars transiting the line are owned and maintained by other railroads or companies.

Fire hydrants all along a remote rail line are also absurd. They have no justification for safety and have nothing to do with a “railroad purpose.” U.S. DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) verifies that except within large railyards, no known railroad has strings of hydrants along its enroute lines. Diesel locomotives don’t need water added during trips, and firefighting or quick emergency response is done best by vehicles coming by the existing road. San Bernardino County’s fire department says the road is sufficient for the department’s rapid-response needs.

In its latest effort to mask its water-export project, Cadiz announced plans for a steam-powered tourist train, using Mojave Aquifer water. A steam engine running in this region is a further overheated absurdity.

Cadiz is unaware of the economics. From my direct experience of 40-plus years, safely maintaining a steam locomotive is about 20 times more expensive than even a 30-year-old diesel. The proposed route is extremely remote, without an adequate rail tourism market present or future. Steam trains tried in scarce-population areas have rapidly proven nonviable. That’s due to huge unavoidable costs and few paying tourist passengers to cover the bills. Cadiz proposes a cute steam excursion to burn money by the trainload.

The Interior Department owes to all Americans a review of high-risk water projects, so impacts can be vetted by those without stakes in the matter and vetted also by the affected public in the light of day.

Bill Withuhn is a former managing vice president of diesel freight-rail lines in five states. For operational steam engines, he served four years as co-chair of a U.S. DOT special committee developing today’s stricter safety standards, which have also cut operating costs. He lives in Camanche Lake, Calif.