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Key Agencies Reach Accord on Wells in Mojave Desert

Water: Officials say a system of electronic sensors will provide an early warning if supplies are becoming exhausted.


SAN BERNARDINO — Despite unresolved questions about environmental risks, a plan to pump massive amounts of water from beneath the Mojave Desert appears to be moving toward approval, water officials said Tuesday.

Officials from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Santa Monica-based Cadiz Inc. told the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors that they have struck an accord with two key federal agencies that have been critical of the plan.

Some officials at the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service worry that the pumping--which the MWD says is crucial to meeting the region's needs--could exhaust natural supplies of underground water and create dust that would add to Southern California's air pollution.

Still, the agencies have agreed that a system of electronic sensors and other monitoring devices should be able to detect any potential problems while there is still ample time to avert them.

"We feel the monitoring program is a very valid plan," said Eric Reichard, program chief and hydrologist with the geological survey's San Diego regional office.

The final decision on whether the program can proceed rests with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which also supports the monitoring plan and agrees with the MWD and Cadiz on issues of potential damage.

Unless it is delayed by litigation--several environmental groups are suspiciously eyeing the project, including the Sierra Club--final approval could come early next year.

Planning for the project was halted six months ago amid a scientific disagreement about how quickly the aquifer would be replenished by rainwater, a process known as recharging.

Finally, however, hydrologists for the MWD and Cadiz on one side, and the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey on the other, decided that they could not agree on the issue.

Instead, attention was turned to designing a monitoring system to determine if the ground water is being depleted in time for pumping to be stopped.

One fear is that if the ground water suddenly drops, two dry lakes in the region could turn into giant dust bowls, adding to Southern California's air pollution.

Tom Harter, a hydrology consultant to the MWD and Cadiz, assured supervisors that the monitoring "is fail-safe, an early warning so that no impact is ever felt on the desert."

Wells would be dug on the 27,000 acres of desert land owned by Cadiz, an agribusiness company whose owner, Keith Brackpool, is a political confidant of Gov. Gray Davis.

As envisioned by the MWD and Cadiz, the plan would involve storing surplus Colorado River water in the aquifer during wet years and drawing on stored and natural ground water during dry years.

Cadiz would be paid for the natural ground water and the stored water. The 50-year contract could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the going rate for water.

California is trying to convince other states that share the Colorado River to agree to loosen rules governing the river so that their big neighbor to the west can use a portion of the water that otherwise would be stored in Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam.

If U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt sides with California and loosens those rules, the MWD will need a place to store the surplus water.

The Cadiz and Fenner Valleys in eastern San Bernardino County are only 35 miles from the MWD's Colorado Aqueduct. Plans are to build a 35-mile spur on the aqueduct to carry water to and from the property.

The plan is similar to those for the Coachella Valley and a patch of desert east of Palm Springs called the Hayfield Project where the MWD is also planning to store water in existing aquifers.

Such plans offer key advantages over storing water above ground: They protect the water from evaporation and do not require building environmentally damaging reservoirs.


Water From the Desert

A Santa Monica company is proposing to pump millions of gallons of water from beneath the Mojave Desert. In years when excess water is available from the Colorado River, the company also would allow the Metropolitan Water District to store river water underground.

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