By Scott Slater
Cadiz, California is an eastern Mojave Desert railroad stop hidden along historic Route 66, crisscrossed by the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) and Arizona and California (ARZC) railroads. Traveling through this part of California, you may have noticed the splashes of green vineyards and lemon orchards that line the desert horizon. Cadiz Inc., a California public company, operates a 1,600 acre farm here. The company is the largest private landowner in the area, with a total of 34,000 acres (50 square miles) in Cadiz and 11,000 additional acres in other parts of the Mojave.
Cadiz sits atop a groundwater system in a 1,300 square mile watershed. Under natural conditions, millions of acre-feet of clean renewable groundwater move slowly downward beneath the Cadiz Valley property. This water ultimately reaches the nearby Cadiz and Bristol Dry-Lake playas, the low-point in the watershed, where it merges with highly-saline brine and becomes 10 times saltier than the Pacific Ocean. In this closed basin, the brine and dry surface crust demonstrate that the water, which has no other natural outlet to streams, rivers or lakes, is lost to evaporation.
When I joined Cadiz Inc. in 2008, we set aside an earlier proposal for a water storage project at the site and brought in top-notch hydrologists and groundwater experts to study the groundwater system. We chose to focus on conserving water that is presently being lost to the atmosphere after it has migrated to the dry lakes. Our goal is to put this conserved water to its highest and best beneficial use as a new municipal water supply that can alleviate pressure on imported water from Northern California and the Colorado River.
The people of California adopted a Constitutional Amendment, Article X Section 2, which compels maximizing the reasonable and beneficial use of water and the avoidance of waste. This provision has fostered a plethora of conservation efforts aimed at reducing and eliminating evaporative losses. This provision is the cornerstone of the project. But for the efforts of Cadiz, millions of acre-feet of fresh potable groundwater will be lost without further beneficial use.
While all of California’s water is a public resource, property rights to the use of water are commonly vested in cities, districts, businesses, farms and individuals. As the owner of 50 square-miles of real property overlying a groundwater basin, Cadiz maintains overlying rights to utilize groundwater beneath its land and to develop water through conservation. The Cadiz farm is presently developed on 1,600 acres, but an additional 8,000 acres of the Cadiz property is presently zoned for agriculture and permitted to use groundwater for irrigation of crops. In absence of the conservation project, Cadiz could pump an equivalent or even greater quantity of water than contemplated by the project for use on its overlying lands. State policy mandates putting water to its highest, most beneficial use and prohibits waste. These rights and policy form the basis for the conservation project.
In 2011, we began a permitting process for the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project. It proposes to capture 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year, both water that is naturally recharging into the basin annually and water that could be retrieved to the well-field before it becomes hyper-saline and evaporates. The annual quantity is equivalent to approximately 1% of the estimated quantity of groundwater already in storage.
The conserved water will be delivered via a 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct for customers throughout Southern California. Instead of building a pipeline across undisturbed desert, the pipeline to the aqueduct would be constructed along the existing ARZC railroad.
A second phase of the project would provide underground storage for imported surplus water in wet years but only after the first phase proves viable and after the second phase undergoes further environmental review. During the second phase, surplus water from the State Water Project or Colorado River Aqueduct could be banked in the aquifer system and held in storage until needed.
Those familiar with Cadiz may remember the project proposed in this area over 10 years ago. In 2000, the company developed a project with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that could have stored and recovered up to 150,000 acre-feet of groundwater in any year. The delivery pipeline would have crossed federal desert. The U.S. BLM and Metropolitan exhaustively reviewed this earlier project, and BLM issued permits to proceed. But ultimately the Metropolitan board decided not to implement the project.
The company was not blind to the criticisms of the earlier project, and the present project has been designed with respect for the historical concerns raised. More than three years were spent in revisiting commentary regarding the earlier project and gathering fresh data. As a result, the new project has been reduced in capacity, focuses on conservation, and will be built on disturbed land.
The project currently has six southern California water provider participants, including Santa Margarita Water District, Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Suburban Water Systems, Golden State Water Company, Jurupa Community Services District and California Water Service Company, with reserved rights to annual supplies from the project. Cadiz has also reserved up to 20% of the project’s supplies for future use by San Bernardino County water agencies.
As longtime members of the county’s business community, we are also committed to supporting local jobs and businesses. Inland Empire economist Dr. John Husing estimates that the project would have a four-year economic impact of $878 million and create an annual average of approximately 1,100 direct and indirect jobs during construction. In addition, the project is expected to increase the county’s annual property tax revenue by roughly $5.4 million per year, including approximately $613,000 per year for the Needles Unified School District.
Last month, in a pledge to local jobs & investment, Cadiz committed to purchase 80% of the materials needed for the project’s facilities from San Bernardino County businesses and dedicated 50% of jobs to county residents, including a goal of 10% for local veterans. Encouraged by the potential project benefits, many local chambers of commerce, including Adelanto, Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, Twentynine Palms and Needles, expressed support for the project.
There are many misconceptions about the project, including that it will impact surrounding water users or wildlife in the watershed. As described in the project’s draft environmental impact report, extensive modeling and fieldwork found there would be no significant impacts to critical resources of the desert including water, air, springs, subsidence or saline/fresh water movement from the project. The Mojave National Preserve and landowners within it are also far outside the anticipated modeled areas of drawdown.
But to provide assurance that the desert ecosystem and local land uses will not be harmed, a state-of-the-art groundwater management program, called the Groundwater Management, Monitoring and Mitigation Plan, was designed by leading groundwater experts to monitor aquifer conditions and address any potential for impact. Many different monitoring features will be used throughout the watershed, including more than 40 monitoring wells at various locations, air monitoring devices and new weather stations.
Additionally, the plan protects third-party well owners in the area from economic harm. Any well owner can be monitored and any impact, though not anticipated, would be mitigated under the plan. In May 2012, Cadiz and San Bernardino County entered into an agreement granting the county full enforcement authority. All monitoring reports will be filed with the county and made available to the public. This independent role will enforce the commitments to protect the desert and other land users.
The project is currently undergoing an environmental review and permitting process. Many decisions about implementation and operation are yet to be made. As we move through this process, we look forward to working with the many stakeholders in the community to provide a safe and sustainable water supply solution. To learn more, visit http://cadizinc.com/water-project/.
Scott Slater is Cadiz Inc.’s president and general counsel and is also a member of the company’s board of directors. In addition to his role with the company, Mr. Slater is an attorney with and shareholder in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a leading water practice firm. For 27 years, Mr. Slater’s legal practice has been focused on litigation and the negotiation of agreements related to the acquisition, distribution, and treatment of water. Mr. Slater is also the author of California Water Law and Policy, a treatise on the subject.