Making the rounds in the California news these days is a ploy by the owners of water rights in the Mojave Desert near Cadiz, to mine groundwater and sell it to utilities in southern California. Currently, rainfall in the basin enters the groundwater table, traveling slowly underground to two dry salt lakebeds, where the water resurfaces and evaporates away. The business group Cadiz, Inc. thinks that this is a waste of perfectly good water resources, and wants to extract the water just upstream of the lakes, deliver it just 50 miles to the Colorado River Aqueduct (map here), then make lots of money from the water sale.
There are a couple of problems with this approach. First, the groundwater in question supplies natural springs in the Mojave Natural Preserve, and the actual impact of pumping on the springs is likely to be different than the “no impact” that the businessmen assume. Secondly, the exraction plan is completely unsustainable. The Cadiz group has estimated the annual recharge of the basin for the past 50 years, and assumes that this will continue for the coming 100 years. They then intend to extract 100 years’ worth of recharge in just 50 years. The second 50 years will allow the basin to rebound from the intensive extraction. Third, even with such an odd plan, independent scientists suggest that the actual natural recharge rate is 10-50% of the rate that Cadiz assumes, meaning that it will take many centuries for the basin to recover.
I saw the Cadiz scientists present their data monitoring plan in Sacramento a couple of weeks ago at a Groundwater Resources Association of California legislative symposium. It was a terrible presentation, in my opinion — lots of figures with tiny writing and too many slides, so that we never got the full message of each slide. It felt like they were trying to sell us on something bogus. There were many questions from the professionals in the room, ranging from the impact of extraction on local rainfall to the potential of the dry lakebeds to turn into environmental hazards in the way that Owens Lake has. (Owens Lake’s inflow was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct nearly 100 years ago, but the dry lake sediments that have been exposed are a huge dust and air pollution problem, and LA has been forced to cut back on its diversions to keep the sediments wet.) Theoretically this would be addressed in the Environmental Impact Report, but Cadiz is trying to get away with the minimum impact assessment because they’re on former railroad territory, which gets an exemption from much of the state and federal environmental legislation.
The issue that they didn’t cover that day, and haven’t covered in any subsequent press, is why on earth they would devise such an intense extraction plan. If they were to withdraw groundwater at roughly the recharge rate, they could deliver water indefinitely, which would be years upon years of profit. Instead, they are focused on a 50-year time window for their sales. Maybe it would require that much in water sales to make the rest of the capital costs for the 50-mile pipeline come out in the black. But to me, it all reeks of short-term profit-seeking. What will the southern Californian water utilities do when the 50-year extraction is over? They’ll have just delayed the inevitable, and let more people get used to unsustainable water resources. It just sounds like a bad idea.