Citing Isolated Spring, Cadiz Inc. Claims H2O Project Won’t Hurt Desert

Five-and-a-half years ago, Cadiz, Inc. finessed the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors into allowing the board of directors for an Orange County Water District to carry out the environmental certification and approval of a controversial water extraction project located in the East Mojave Desert, over 200 miles outside of the water district’s borders. The unorthodox approval process for a plan to draft billions of gallons of water from an aquifer in the East Mojave Desert for use in Los Angeles and Orange counties has fueled questions about the integrity and legitimacy of the environmental certification of the project ever since. This week, Cadiz, Inc. released a study prepared by a team of scientists it hired to review an issue tangentially related to the project’s environmental review, which offered the conclusion that a spring on higher ground than, and more than ten miles removed from, the project’s wellfield will likely be unaffected by the water extraction. The company has extrapolated on that conclusion to assert the project overall will not have a deleterious impact on the East Mojave Desert’s wildlife.
While the project was given environmental certification in 2012 through a process specified under the California Environmental Quality Act, several of the issues addressed in the environmental impact report have been disputed or controverted by subsequent reviews made by environmentalists or the federal government. The complete draining of, or lasting adverse impacts on, the natural springs in the eastern Mojave Desert has been cited by environmentalists and project opponents as a primary reason for not allowing the Cadiz Water Project to proceed.
According to Cadiz, Inc., however, the study it recently commissioned indicates the ecological havoc naysayers are predicting if the project is allowed to proceed will not come about.
Beginning in the late 1980s, what was then known as the Cadiz Land Company, which had been created by Ted Dutton and Keith Brackpool, sunk a well in the Cadiz Valley in the Eastern Mojave Desert and initiated an organic farming operation there growing tomatoes, peppers, melons, grapes and citrus. Though at no time throughout its existence did the Cadiz farming operation operate at a profit, it was able to make an assertion, based upon the irrigation of the crops at the Cadiz farm, to water rights from the Cadiz/Fenner aquifer. In 1997 the Metropolitan Water District tentatively bought into Cadiz Land’s proposal to convey up to 1.5 million acre-feet of what was referenced as “surplus” Colorado River water to Cadiz and “store” that water by pumping it into the water table. In “dry years” the Cadiz Land Company proposed allowing the Metropolitan Water District to extract water from the aquifer and conduct it through a 35-mile pipeline that was to be constructed between Cadiz and the Metropolitan Water District’s existing Colorado River aqueduct. In August 2002 the federal government gave approval to the project but two months later the Metropolitan Water District’s board of directors rejected the project after conservationists raised concerns over possible environmental damage, given the pristine nature of the aquifer beneath the floor of the Cadiz Valley, which contains ancient water that has been accumulating there through natural means since before the Pleistocene Era. The concept lay dormant for six years but in 2008, the Cadiz Land Company, by then known as Cadiz, Inc., revived the plan in modified form, emphasizing less the drawing of water from the Colorado River and instead proposing to obtain water from sources feeding the desert area’s dry lakes that Cadiz, Inc. claimed are subject to evaporation. The revamped project, to entail the sinking of 34 wells into the desert and construction of a 44-mile pipeline to meet up with the aqueduct carrying Colorado River water to the Los Angeles and Orange County metropolitan areas, was given a tentative budget of $536.25 million. Cadiz, Inc. first arranged to find potential buyers of the water, lining up the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County; the Three Valleys Water District, which provides water to 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. Then, to obtain environmental certification of the project, Cadiz, Inc. turned not to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, but to the Santa Margarita Water District, which was to be the largest recipient of the water. The Santa Margarita Water District is the second largest water district in Orange County, serving the affluent communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and Talega.
A contingent of San Bernardino County residents protested the Santa Margarita Water District’s assumption of lead agency status on the plan, officially known as the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation and Recovery Project, based on the consideration that the district lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley across the county line from San Bernardino County. San Bernardino County could have contested that arrangement in court, but Cadiz, Inc. effectively muted that by providing then-San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, in whose First District the Cadiz and Fenner valleys and much of the East Mojave were located, with $48,100 in political donations as he attempted to vault from his position as county supervisor to Congress. In the June 2012 primary, Mitzelfelt proved unsuccessful in his effort to get into the 8th Congressional District race runoff in November 2012, placing a distant fifth among thirteen candidates, in no small part because his support of the Cadiz Project was so unpopular with his constituents that the hefty political contributions from Cadiz, Inc. proved to be of no avail to him. In seeking to transition into Congress in 2012, Mitzelfelt had to forgo seeking reelection as supervisor that same year. Thus, he was consigned to leave office later that year. He was still in office as a lame duck when on July 31, 2012, the Santa Margarita Water District’s board of directors certified the environmental impact report for the Cadiz Water Project, clearing the way for Cadiz, Inc. to extract an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year – more than 16 billion gallons of groundwater annually – for the next century from the eastern Mojave Desert and send it via pipeline westward to Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
In the more than five years since, a succession of environmental challenges and lawsuits have delayed the implementation of the project. Cadiz, Inc. has succeeded in overcoming those lawsuits, nearly all of which were heard in Orange County Superior Court.
Legal and administrative sparring over the project continues, with the Donald Trump administration having issued a blanket memo revoking a Bureau of Land Management’s 2015 decision preventing Cadiz Inc. from using existing federal railroad right-of-way for the water pipeline it intends to construct to convey water drawn from the aquifer to the Metropolitan Water District’s aqueduct. Simultaneously, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who was the lead sponsor of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton and a longtime opponent of Cadiz, Inc.’s designs on desert water, has united forces with California Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, in forging legislative efforts to prevent the Cadiz Water Project from proceeding. In November, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit against the federal government for approving the project.
That lawsuit challenges what the plaintiffs term “an illegal determination by the Trump Administration” alleged to allow “a for-profit corporation called Cadiz, Inc. to construct a 43-mile pipeline through Mojave Trails National Monument and other public land while circumventing laws enacted to protect human health and the environment” and “allow Cadiz, Inc. to sell billions of gallons of groundwater mined from ancient desert aquifers to urban water districts.” The lawsuit further holds that “construction and maintenance of the pipeline [will] disrupt wildlife and worsen pollution in and around Mojave Trails National Monument.” The suit asserts that “the U.S. Geological Survey has warned the pipeline will make it possible for Cadiz, Inc. to extract far more groundwater from the desert aquifers than is replenished naturally. The resulting draw-down of the water table will cause many freshwater springs of critical importance to desert plants and animals to go dry. The retreating aquifer will also desiccate desert “playa” lakebeds, resulting in toxic air pollution from windswept sediments akin to what has plagued the Owens Valley to the north ever since Los Angeles dried Owens Lake a century ago.”
The study commissioned by Cadiz, Inc. and announced on the company’s website this week deals with that latter point. According to Cadiz, Inc., the study, co-authored by geologist Miles Kenney, Ph.D. and California State certified hydrogeologist Terry Foreman, supports a disputed determination contained in the California Environmental Quality Act report done for the approval process of the project and entered into the public record in 2012 that the project is hydraulically disconnected from Bonanza Spring, one of the most verdant spots in the project area and also the closest perennial natural spring to the Cadiz Water Project at 11 miles away and an elevation separation of 1,000 feet.
According to Cadiz, Inc. the study was completed “after extensive field work, site observation, and geologic mapping, as well as a peer review conducted by other hydrology, geology, and hydrogeology experts. The report cites as “facts” that “Bonanza Spring occurs in fractured crystalline mountain bedrock in the southwestern Clipper Mountains at 2,100 feet elevation. The spring exists entirely in bedrock. Bonanza Spring is 11 miles northeast of the northern end of Cadiz Water Project’s wellfield. The Cadiz Water Project wellfield water table in the alluvial aquifer occurs at approximately 1,100 feet elevation, 1,000 feet lower than Bonanza Spring, which indicates ‘disconnection’ between the two systems.”
Furthermore, according to the study, “The alluvial groundwater aquifer is also three miles to the east of the Bonanza Spring. Bonanza Spring is located at the intersection of two extensive bounding faults, which exhibit evidence of being groundwater barriers. The two bounding faults create a spring catchment area that extends over 4 miles north of the Bonanza Spring. Recharge to the catchment area is delivered by precipitation and runoff that infiltrates the porous, fractured rock formations up gradient from the spring. This fractured rock system is effectively hydraulically separated from the alluvial regional groundwater system in Fenner Valley. Long-term climate conditions, not regional groundwater conditions, control recharge of Bonanza Spring.”
In releasing the report, Cadiz, Inc. Chief Operating Officer Scott Slater acknowledged that the 2012 environmental impact report for the project had come under attack, but asserted the findings of the recent study allayed those concerns.
“While the extensive body of work to date has already assured that the project will not harm any desert resources, we commissioned Miles’ peer-reviewed geologic investigation to address lingering questions as to whether the project could impact Bonanza Spring under any circumstance,” said Slater. “That question has now been answered definitively no. The new study confirms that project operations cannot affect the spring, or plants and animals that may rely on it. This conclusion is reached based on important geologic findings by Dr. Kenney, principally the identification of two convergent fault zones that are blocking, or ‘damming,’ upstream groundwater flowing in fractured bedrock above the spring. These faults intersect exactly at the Bonanza Spring, and groundwater is surfacing from the fractured rocks and spilling over the faults to form it.”
Slater continued, “This fractured rock is at a limited depth and does not extend to the downstream aquifer in the Fenner Gap, known as the ‘alluvial aquifer,’ where the water project will operate. The faulting and limited depth of the fractured rocks and the extensive exposure of these permeable rocks upslope of Bonanza Spring have created a catchment area that provides a long-term source of water to the spring from above that is independent of, and not influenced by, conditions in the alluvial aquifer at the Cadiz area miles below. These observed physical data points provide incontrovertible evidence that the spring will not be affected by project operations. Dr. Kenney is the geologist most familiar with this watershed, and this report well documents his conclusion – and that of those who peer reviewed the report – that faulting and the geologic nature of the fractured rock creates physical barriers that prevent the project from ever impacting Bonanza Spring.”
Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the consideration that Bonanza Spring feeds either entirely or partially off of a water source that is geologically isolated from other portions of the aquifer does nothing to vindicate the overall advisability of the project.
“There is no real new information to take away from what they have in this study as to what is going on in the aquifer there,” Anderson told the Sentinel. “The meaningful issue is how much natural recharge there is to the water table in that region on an annual basis and how much water will this project remove in the same time frame and on a continuous basis. The U.S. Geological Survey and other scientists have debunked entirely Cadiz, Inc.’s claims of the recharge rate. Their plan calls for removing an incredible amount of water from a significant ancient aquifer that accumulated when that surface area was a grassland and not a desert. The operative issue is that annual rainfall throughout that area is much less than what Cadiz, Inc. says is recharged into that aquifer each year. Nothing has changed since those studies were done, except that with the drought there has been even less recharge. That data is reliable, coming from the U.S. Geological Survey. A determination of whether this project should move forward should be based on reliable data that is provided by members of the scientific community who do not have a stake in this project moving forward.”
The scientists hired by Cadiz, Inc., Anderson said, have couched their findings in a narrowly drawn framework which is calculated to ignore the “plundering of the desert for its resources. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that you can pump 16 billion gallons of groundwater out of the Mojave Desert every year and not do irreversible damage to wildlife and seriously imperil the regional water supplies.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein referred to the data and conclusion reached by Kenney, Foreman and their team as “dubious Cadiz-sponsored findings. Cadiz can keep peddling these ridiculous claims, but we’re still not buying it,” Feinstein said. “Objective, independent studies show Cadiz is an unsustainable scheme that will devastate an entire ecosystem. Unbiased scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service have consistently disputed Cadiz’s findings and repeatedly stated the project would drain vital desert aquifers. Nothing in this study, bought and paid for by Cadiz, changes those facts.”
     -Mark Gutglueck

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