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Water for the People

October 11, 2002

Hoover Dam in the 1930s and the State Water Project in the 1960s, traditional water projects with massive dams and aqueducts, were once hallmarks of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the giant water wholesaler to the region. Now, with no more big rivers to dam and with water demands rising, the water district is developing untraditional sources and partnerships to bring water to the urbanized desert. This creativity is good, but public ownership of water supplies cannot be compromised.

The district has been a pioneer. In the mid-1980s it paid for water-saving projects in Imperial Irrigation District farmlands--such as lining canals to stop leakage--and got for urban use the water that was saved. "Met," as the Metropolitan Water District is known, has been ahead in storing water underground in wet years for use in dry times.

A Metropolitan project in conjunction with a private company, Cadiz, was hailed in 1997 as a prototype public-private venture: Business gathers and perhaps stores the water, then sells it to the public agency. But after years of study and controversy, this proposed experiment had too many nagging problems. The district's 37-member board did the right thing in killing the project Tuesday.

Cadiz, run by entrepreneur Keith Brackpool, owns a 35,000-acre ranch in the Mojave Desert, sitting atop an underground aquifer formed over centuries. Cadiz proposed a 35-mile-long pipeline to link the ranch with Met's California Aqueduct, which already carries Colorado River water to the Los Angeles area.

In wet years, Met would divert surplus river water to Cadiz and store it underground. Additionally, and most critically, Cadiz would sell aquifer water as well, enough for up to 100,000 households. The company said it could remove that much a year without harming the desert's fragile plant and animal life, but others challenged such claims in regulatory proceedings. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) came out in vigorous opposition this year.

Brackpool may not have been helped by his friendship with Gov. Gray Davis and wooing of legislators. And it appeared that Met might not have much surplus water to store at Cadiz because California will have to cut back on its take of the Colorado River.

The failure of Cadiz does not mean there is no role for private companies in water trading and marketing. But the water belongs to the people of California. Government agencies must be certain that however water is traded, diverted or manipulated, the public interest remains the highest priority.

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