Scott Slater, president and general counsel of Cadiz Inc., watches as water… (Los Angeles Times )
CADIZ, Calif. – Three decades ago a group of businessmen pored over NASA satellite imagery as part of a worldwide hunt for large groundwater reserves they could tap to grow desert crops. They found the signs they were looking for here in the sun-blasted mountain ranges and creosote-freckled valleys of the Mojave Desert, 200 miles east of Los Angeles.
The group, which founded Cadiz Inc., bought old railroad land, drilled wells and planted neat grids of citrus trees and grapevines, irrigating them with water that bubbled out of the desert depths at the rate of 2,000 gallons a minute.
But by the mid-1990s, Cadiz had a new business plan: Sell water, not lemons.
PHOTOS: Mojave groundwater plan
The company is pushing ahead with a proposal to pump enough groundwater every year to supply 100,000 homes and sell it to urban Southern California at prices that could, over the project's 50-year life, reap $1 billion to $2 billion in revenue.
If the plan succeeds, it will turn ancient desert groundwater, a public resource, into a fountain of private profit, blazing a new — and some warn ominous — path in the state.
"I think we're setting a precedent here for the development of groundwater in the Mojave Desert," said hydrologist John Bredehoeft, a former regional manager for the U.S. Geological Survey who was hired by conservation groups to review the project.
Critics question whether the Southland, infamous for slaking its thirst with water from the Owens Valley and elsewhere, should now draw new supplies from pristine desert watersheds.
"It's taking a public resource that originates on public land, privatizing it and selling it back to the public," said Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Assn., one of a dozen environmental groups challenging the project. "This water is going to Orange County lawns and swimming pools. The desert is being asked to shoulder the burden."
Keith Brackpool, the corporation's politically connected, British-born chief executive, has spent the last 15 years trying to get into the water business. He came close in 2002, nearly sealing a pact with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region's giant water wholesaler.
The company has made enough progress with its latest proposal to worry long-standing opponents, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who on Friday called for a federal review of the project. Cadiz has lined up new customers, released a thick pile of environmental documents and hired one of the West's most powerful law firms.
At times sounding like they are describing a major oil discovery, Cadiz officials are pitching the project as a dependable alternative to water deliveries from Northern California and the Colorado River that have been squeezed by drought and environmental regulations.
"It is more reliable than anything out there," said Cadiz President and General Counsel Scott Slater, a partner in the Denver-based law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which runs one of the top-grossing lobbying operations in Washington. "The environmental effects are nominal."
A veteran water attorney, Slater is the project's chief spokesman. Brackpool, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board and a past contributor to high-profile Democrats, has stayed in the background. Thirty years ago he was fined by a British court for dealing in securities without a license.
Federal lands surround the 34,000 acres the company owns just south of Route 66 near the old railroad stop of Cadiz. A half-dozen congressionally designated wilderness areas are close by. About 15 miles to the north lies the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, managed by the National Park Service.
Cadiz's proposed network of 30 wells, each about 1,000 feet deep, would pump groundwater that flows from beneath these public lands and is replenished by rain and snowmelt from their mountain ranges: the Providence and New York, the Marble and the Clipper.
The aquifer dates from wetter times long ago, when water seeped into subterranean layers of sand and gravel and deep, ancient formations of limestone and dolomite. Cadiz believes there is enough groundwater to fill California's largest reservoir roughly four to seven times over.
Despite Slater's assurances, the plan involves a calculated risk to the desert.
About 11 miles from the Cadiz lemon groves, on the south side of the Clipper Mountains, is Bonanza Spring. It is the closest to the proposed well field of more than two dozen springs in the area. Bighorn sheep, bobcats and other wildlife come here to lap from the shallow pools of water amid reeds and willow trees, a shock of green in the Mojave's brown palette.