Water pours out into a spreading basin which holds water from a pilot well,… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
One of the West's most ambitious private water marketing proposals has taken a step forward with the environmental approval ofCadiz Inc.'s plans to sell massive amounts of Mojave Desert groundwater to Southern California.
The board of the Santa Margarita Water District, which serves 155,000 customers in south Orange County, voted 5 to 0 Tuesday night to sign off on the project's environmental impact report under state law. The board also agreed to buy one-tenth of the project's proposed annual yield.
The actions are a boost for Cadiz, whose owner, British-born entrepreneur Keith Brackpool, has been trying for 15 years to make money off the aquifer that lies beneath his desert holdings 200 miles east of Los Angeles.
But Cadiz has many more hoops to jump through before Brackpool's dream becomes a reality. The project, with a preliminary price tag of $225 milion to $275 million, lacks financing. It faces legal challenges and the possibility that it may still have to win approval from the federal government, which manages public lands surrounding the proposed well field.
In an interview Wednesday, Santa Margarita board member Charley Wilsonsaid the district views the project as a way to diversify supplies, but he acknowledged that it was far from guaranteed. "We thought [it] was worth taking the next step to see if it comes to fruition."
The district's authority to act as lead in the environmental review process has been challenged in lawsuits filed by opponents, who are expected to take additional legal action to try to overturn the board's decision.
"We believe that the board made a terrible mistake last night and that this move will jeopardize the Mojave National Preserve springs, groundwater resources and air quality," said Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Assn., one of a number of environmental groups fighting the proposal.
Cadiz wants to withdraw enough groundwater every year to supply 100,000 homes and sell it at prices that could produce $1 billion to $2 billion in corporate revenue over the 50-year life of the project. Though Central Valley farmers pump and sell groundwater during drought, the scale of the desert project is unprecedented for a private venture in California.
The planned pumping rate would exceed the aquifer's natural recharge rate, lowering the groundwater table not just beneath the Cadiz property but also below neighboring federal land that is home to bighorn sheep herds and the desert tortoise.
Three former superintendents of the nearby Mojave National Preserve and a former regional director of the National Park Service recently urged the water board to reject the environmental review as inadequate.
Wilson said the board based its decision on a review of scientific data. The district's general manager, Dan Ferons, said the monitoring and management plan approved by the board would provide "plenty of warning signals" if the operation was harming the desert environment.
Experts hired by Cadiz have said the withdrawals would not hurt springs in the area or cause significant environmental damage. But their analysis has been disputed by preserve officials and experts hired by conservation groups, who say Cadiz has greatly overestimated the aquifer's recharge rate — and underestimated the possible effects of a half century of pumping.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whose 1994 desert protection legislation established the preserve, has asked the U.S. Interior Department to review the proposal under federal environmental law, a process that would slow the project and possibly lead to the adoption of stricter monitoring and management guidelines.
"At a bare minimum, this project must undergo thorough federal environmental reviews — not just reviews at the state level," Feinstein said in a statement to The Times. "Cadiz could deplete the aquifer to the extent that it would effectively destroy that portion of the Mojave which I have worked to protect."
Cadiz has insisted it doesn't need federal approval because the 43-mile pipeline connecting the well field to the Colorado River Aqueduct would be buried along an existing railroad right-of-way across federal land. But a 2011 opinion by the Interior solicitor threw that rationale into question by concluding that railroads can't authorize activities that don't further the railroad's purpose.
The Interior Department says it is evaluating Cadiz's argument that the project would aid the railroad by providing water to douse railroad trestle fires, wash rail cars and operate a steam engine train, which the railroad is considering launching with Cadiz as a weekend tourist attraction.
Also pending is permission from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to transport Cadiz supplies in the river aqueduct, which Metropolitan owns and operates. The agency has expressed concerns about the presence of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, in the aquifer that Cadiz would draw from, raising the possibility that expensive well field treatment would be required. Metropolitan has also informed Cadiz that aqueduct space may not always be available for its shipments.