any press is good press?

The ill-fated Cadiz groundwater extraction project keeps accumulating approvals, but not without dredging up more opposition.  The San Bernardino County supervisors approved the Environmental Impact Report, with one stipulation: groundwater drawdown must not exceed 80 feet below the normal water table.  If the USGS estimate of recharge (approximately 5,000 acre-feet per year) is accurate, the 80-ft metric will be reached in roughly 10 years.  If the Cadiz estimate of recharge (approximately 32,000 acre-feet per year) is accurate, they’ll have a few more years of leeway (I’m going to be lazy and not look through their 1700-page EIR for the exact drawdown they project, sorry).  I’m glad that they at least added something nominal to the EIR, but the four supervisors who voted to approve the plan may have a tough time being reelected: the lone dissenter, Neil Derry, noted, “My constituents have been very vocal about not taking water out of the desert.”  There are also documented donations from Cadiz, Inc. to the coffers of the Board of Supervisors — to the tune of $107,000.  I won’t speculate on the influence of money in politics.

Besides the local opposition, Cadiz has a couple of very powerful opponents: Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  Senator Feinstein’s office is pushing for a federal review of the EIR, which is likely both to generate red tape for an unfavored project and to subject the EIR to much more stringent environmental standards.  MWD is apparently still smarting from the last time this project came up, failed to materialize, and then spawned a lawsuit from Cadiz.  Besides the bad blood (lawsuits rarely happen between friends…), MWD operates a mostly full Colorado River aqueduct with very high quality drinking water — no need to add the Cadiz water, which may just have high levels of arsenic and chromium in it (data about which was conveniently omitted from the aforementioned EIR), to the relatively smooth operations.  The MWD annual report for 2011 mentions three programs to ensure that the Colorado Aqueduct operates as close to full as possible, and more to ensure the California Aqueduct does as well.  There may still be room for that Cadiz water, but MWD sounds like it’s only willing to make room for a friend…and Cadiz, Inc. may not fall under that umbrella…

The press coverage has also led to a flurry of lawsuits against the Cadiz project.  The tally of lawsuits is now up to five: one from the company mining the nearby evaporating lake beds for salt, three from environmental groups that want to protect the delicate desert spring ecosystems nearby, and one from a labor union that claims the environmental impact report does not assess the danger of unexploded ordnance from WWII-era military exercises in the area.  Cadiz definitely has a long way to go, but a path littered with lawsuits, federal red tape, and an unfriendly potential business partner suggest it will be a very expensive one.

I have a suggestion: why not try bottling water?  Bottled water companies harvest desert spring water all the time — Crystal Geyser wants to expand its operations in Olancha, California, known for its hot, dusty vistas of the eastern side of the Sierras and the dry lakebed of Owens Lake.  Sure, it’s expensive to bottle water, but you also get to charge more for it, and there aren’t as many pesky political issues in the way…at least as long as they stay out of the press.  Maybe Cadiz thinks any press is good press, but I would advise them to rethink that philosophy.

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if you build it, the water will come

I’ve mentioned before that Cadiz, Inc. is trying to get approval to extract groundwater from the Mojave desert near Cadiz to sell it to water agencies in southern California.  The big part of their plan that left me confused was their plan to overextract the groundwater for 50 years, then allow the water table to recover for 50 years.  Why not pump at the recharge rate, rather than at a rate at least 1.5 times the recharge rate?  One obvious reason is to make money: 50,000 acre feet/year (AF/y) makes you a player in SoCal water resources; 5,000 AF/y does not.

I read through the Cadiz project’s draft EIR (the whole document is nearly 3000 pages! that’s crazy!), and their rationale is that they need to get the existing groundwater out of the way, so that they will have space for all the surface water that they’re going to store in the aquifer.  If you store water in the aquifer in its current state, it will just induce faster flow towards the dry lake basins, and much of the stored water will be lost to evaporation.  But if you make the space for it, you can store as much water as you need, for an indefinite period.  This phase of their project is “Phase II”.  Phase I was when they got about 10 smaller water agencies in southern California to sign on to buy the Cadiz water, if it’s ever produced.  So, who will store their water in the Cadiz aquifer?  So far, no one.

There are a couple of reasons why no one has signed up.  First of all, no one has extra water.  It has been pretty darn dry of late, and climatologists suggest this is the trend for the future.  Second, if Metropolitan Water District of SoCal (MWD) gets extra water from the Colorado River, they store it in Lake Mead, which has plenty of space right now (51% full at the moment).  The Colorado Aqueduct already operates at full capacity, so they can’t immediately deliver extra water even if they get it.  Third, the State Water Project’s supply from the Bay-Delta region is up in the air, due to endangered species issues for the delta smelt, and even if a peripheral canal of some sort is built, don’t expect the other stakeholders in the California Aqueduct to go along with sending all the “excess” water towards water-hungry L.A.  A fourth and final point is that in the first generation of this Cadiz project, geologists recognized naturally occurring arsenic and chromium in the Cadiz valley groundwater.  Arsenic and chromium geochemistry is such that adding oxygenated surface water to the groundwater could, in fact, enhance mobilization of arsenic and chromium into the stored groundwater, making it toxic during storage, so that it would need expensive treatment before it could be delivered to customers.  I certainly wouldn’t want to bank my future water supply in that aquifer without a lot more study!

I’m a big proponent of water recycling and innovative water storage solutions, such as managed underground storage, but this project is not about sustainable water management — it’s about money.  And Cadiz, Inc. plans to make a lot of it by withdrawing a bunch of groundwater from a remote desert valley, regardless of whether phantom water deposits ever show up.

Loopholes and Desert Springs

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.