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California and the West

High Chromium 6 Levels Found in Mojave Aquifer

Health: Discovery of suspected carcinogen complicates the MWD's proposed water purchase.

November 14, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The expansive aquifer in the Mojave Desert that water officials are banking on to play a major role in Southern California's water future has an usually high amount of chromium 6, which is suspected of causing cancer and other illnesses, Metropolitan Water District board members were told Monday.

While chromium 6--like numerous other dangerous substances in water--can be greatly reduced during treatment, the finding is an unexpected complication in a proposed deal between the MWD and Cadiz Inc., the Santa Monica-based agribusiness company that owns the acreage above the aquifer.

It also puts the already environmentally controversial MWD-Cadiz deal in the middle of a hot health dispute: How cautious should health officials be in setting clean water standards, particularly when scientists cannot agree on the danger level posed by a certain chemical?

Ron Gastelum, the MWD's general manager, said he thinks that if chromium needs to be filtered from the Mojave Desert water, the landowner should pay the price, not the consumer.

"We think this is a good project, but if it's going to cost us as much as Ft. Knox, we'll look for another project," Gastelum said.

A spokeswoman for Cadiz said the company expects that it would be compensated for the costs, possibly as part of an overall state policy on treating chromium 6.

"It's really early for any of us to determine what this will mean," said Cadiz spokeswoman Fiona Hutton. "This is something we'll have to work out in the final details of the contract."

The finding provides new ammunition for environmental groups that already fear that pumping water from beneath the desert could cause dust storms and ruin the fragile desert ecology, including a population of desert bighorn sheep.

Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee, said the presence of chromium 6 undercuts one of the major selling points of the deal: that the Cadiz water is pure and does not need the same level of treatment as notoriously cloudy Colorado River water.

"Obviously this water is not nearly as pristine as Keith Brackpool would have us think," said Hughes, referring to the Cadiz owner, a political confidant of Gov. Gray Davis. "I'm grateful for this finding. They shouldn't be allowed to rape those valleys."

The aquifer, beneath the Cadiz and Fenner valleys on the eastern edge of San Bernardino County, is just the latest water source found to be harboring chromium 6. Numerous wells throughout the state, notably in the San Fernando Valley, have been found to have chromium 6.

In the Cadiz aquifer, the level of chromium 6, known scientifically as hexavalent chromium, is lower than the level now considered dangerous by state authorities but higher than the revised standard under consideration.

Despite disagreement among scientists about what level of chromium 6 poses a health risk, state and federal officials are working toward a new health standard for the chemical, which can leach into the soil from industrial uses but also occurs naturally.

In the case of the Cadiz aquifer, the chromium 6 found during tests may be the result of geological movements hundreds of years ago. Chromium 6 has also been found in an aquifer in the Coachella Valley, where the MWD is planning a similar storage project.

The MWD would like to store massive amounts of surplus Colorado River water in the Cadiz aquifer during wet years and pump out water during dry years for use throughout the six-county region that the mega-agency serves. A 35-mile spur from the Colorado River Aqueduct would have to be built to deliver and retrieve water from the aquifer.

The pumped-out water would include both the surplus water and the native water that has been found high in chromium.

Gastelum said that if additional tests confirm the high level of chromium 6, and depending on what standard health officials ultimately set, it may be necessary to build a treatment plant at Cadiz. Although the technology is available to reduce chromium 6 levels in water, it is expensive, said Gastelum.

The MWD and Cadiz officials had hoped to approve the deal early next year, although the chromium finding could delay that prospective deadline.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service have already signed off on a monitoring plan designed to make sure the project does not harm the aquifer and damage the ecology.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Water From the Desert

A Santa Monica company is proposing to pump millions of gallons of water from beneath the Mojave Desert and sell it to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. But new tests show that the water has a surprisingly high level of chromium, probably raising the project's cost and providing new ammunition for critics.

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SEARCH FOR SOURCES

Owners of 142 Valley businesses have been asked about possible chromium 6 releases. B7

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