NEEDLES—The Needles City Council has unanimously rejected making an endorsement of the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project.
Cadiz Inc., also known as the Cadiz Land Company, is proposing to pump an average of 50,000 acre feet of water out of the aquifer in the east Mojave Desert per year and sell it to five water purveyors serving consumers in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
Cadiz Inc., which operates a 500 acre citrus, table grape, tomato and melon growing agricultural operation in the Cadiz Valley, pursued and abandoned a plan a decade ago to extract water from the water table underlying the Cadiz Valley and pipe it to the Los Angeles metropolitan area for use there. That original plan was forsaken after questions about the ecological impact of the strategy were raised by environmentalists and the entity Cadiz intended to partner with to carry out the undertaking, the Metropolitan Water Agency. That plan called for taking water from the desert aquifer in what were deemed “wet” years and pumping water from the Colorado River into the desert aquifer during “dry” years.
Four years ago, Cadiz Inc., revived the water plan, renaming it the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project. Cadiz is working with Orange County-based Santa Margarita Water District, which services an area that is more than 200 miles from the Cadiz Valley, to obtain approval for the project. The Santa Margarita Water District is currently serving as the lead agency for the project and is charged with overseeing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process for the undertaking.
Through an arrangement with the Cadiz Land Company, the Santa Margarita Water District will, if the project is approved, receive the lion’s share of the water. In addition, Cadiz, Inc. has entered into agreements with Three Valleys Water District, which provides water to the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley, and Eastern San Gabriel Valley; the Golden State Water Company, which serves several communities in Southern California, including Claremont; Suburban Water Systems, which serves Covina, West Covina and La Mirada; and the Jurupa Community Services District, which serves Mira Loma in Riverside County.
Both Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District maintain the project is an environmentally responsible one that should not alarm environmentalists or local landowners. It will rely on a wellfield of 34 wells to “capture and conserve” the water resources in the East Mojave Desert using “safe, established groundwater management techniques to ensure the project is operated without causing harm to the local environment,” according to the Santa Margarita Water District.
In recent months, however, numerous critics of the plan have come forward, asserting that pumping from the aquifer 35,000 acre-feet to 65,000 acre-feet of water yearly as Cadiz Inc. proposes to do would cause a continuous drop in the desert water table that would dry up springs, deplete the local area of a water source crucial to life and future development of the area, create dust storms on nearby dry lake beds, adversely impact air quality, alter the flow of groundwater beneath the Mojave Desert by drawing water away from neighboring aquifers and have a devastating effect on bighorn sheep and other indigenous wildlife.
Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District have stepped up their lobbying efforts on behalf of the project, seeking to gain endorsements of the project from local governmental entities and other influential bodies in the desert to counter the efforts by local landowners and environmentalists to have the Santa Margarita Water District displaced as the lead agency overseeing the environmental certification and approval of the project. In seeking those endorsements, the project advocates maintain that the project is one that is aimed at “conservation” of water otherwise lost to evaporation. A major selling point is that the $536.25 million project will represent a $138 million boon to the East Mojave’s economy that will directly or indirectly create 2,090 jobs for four years, involving $53 million in wages or salaries to workers or proprietorships involved in building the pipeline and other elements of the project.
One such group that Cadiz Inc. made headway with was the Needles Chamber of Commerce, which last month went on record with a letter of support saying it was in favor of the project. Chamber board president Jeff Williams said the project will not only provide employment for many Needles residents but will also result in greater patronage of existing businesses in Needles.
The Needles City Council, however, expressed opposition to the project with a greater intensity than which the chamber supported it.
Based on statements by city manager David Brownlee and municipal water department director Jerry Porter, both of whom evaluated the project, the city council on February 28 unanimously refused a request by Cadiz, Inc. to support the project. Cadiz Inc. founder and vice president Ted Dutton was in attendance at the February 28 meeting.
In a letter dated March 1, 2012 to Environmental Science Associates, the Los Angeles-based consulting company hired by Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District to do the environmental evaluation of the project, Needles Mayor Ed Paget wrote, “The city of Needles cannot endorse a project that will take 50,000 acre-feet of ground water annually from an extremely fragile ecosystem with no concrete plan for the replenishment of the aquifer. Natural recharge is estimated to be 14,000 acre-feet per annum. Taking the other 36,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, the most over-subscribed waterway in America is unacceptable.”
Brownlee told the council that he was highly skeptical of the claim the aquifer could be recharged in the aftermath of the extraction of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year over a 20-year period.
Brownlee said the water the project will capture is a critical part of the desert ecosystem. “What is the definition of lost?” Brownlee asked. “Evaporation comes back as precipitation. It is a critical part of the natural cycle. It also sustains the desert vegetation and critters. I find it hard to believe that as much as 50,000 acre-feet (1.6 billion gallons) are ‘lost.’”
An acre-foot is equal to the amount of water that would cover an acre to the depth of one foot, i.e., 43,560 cubic feet, or 325,851.43 gallons, approximately the amount of water used by a typical household comprised of four people in a metropolitan area over the course of a year.
Brownlee said he did not think it proper to be drawing water from the desert for use near the coast. “There isn’t even a pretense of a water conservation ethos,” Brownlee said.
Brownlee said he thought it “highly unlikely” that the second phase of the project, involving drawing water from the Colorado River to recharge the desert aquifer near Cadiz, will actually come to fruition, “given that the Colorado River is the most over drafted and litigated upon river in the world. It serves 17 million people in Southern California. There isn’t a drop to spare and the Bureau of Reclamation endeavors to measure every one of those drops.”
Brownlee said he felt it to be highly inappropriate for the Santa Margarita Water District, given its distance from the Cadiz Valley and its direct interest in the project, to be serving as the lead agency in the environmental certification process for the undertaking.
“The jurisdiction in which the potential environmental impacts are anticipated to occur should be and usually is the lead agency,” Brownlee said. “How can an entity that stands to benefit from a favorable environmental impact report finding be the responsible jurisdiction? Is that not a prima facie conflict?”