The Absurdity of the Cadiz Water Export Scheme

The Department of Interior this month reversed a policy to make it easier for the Cadiz company to pump billions of gallons of water from an ancient Mojave Desert aquifer - killing off natural springs that wildlife depend upon - to ship that water to the lush landscaping of Orange County.   Cadiz still has other hurdles in its way, but the company's tenacity and willingness to line the pockets of politicians could spell doom for Mojave wildlife.

Cadiz Calls it Conservation
The Cadiz company has a contract to export nearly 16.3 billion gallons (yes, that is billion with a 'b') a year for 50 years from the Mojave to the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) in Orange County.  The Cadiz company claims that it will only pump water that would otherwise evaporate from a dry lake bed and that the aquifer will naturally recharge from rainfall, leaving no significant impacts on wildlife or groundwater levels.  According to Cadiz propaganda, this isn't a water export scheme, but a "water conservation" effort.
A desert thunderstorm rolls through the Fenner Valley.  Rain is scant in the Mojave, but the Cadiz company thinks it can make a robust profit by exporting water from the desert to Orange County.

But Cadiz's claims are based on faulty hydrological studies carried out by contractors paid by the company.  Several independent scientists have questioned the studies, but the Cadiz project has still received approvals at various levels, probably greased by Cadiz's payments to powerful politicians.

Cadiz claims that it can export so much water because rainfall in this Mojave watershed replaces nearly 10.6 billion gallons of water a year.  This is less than the 16.3 billion gallons it would export each year, but Cadiz says that rainfall would replace the remaining balance in the years after the water pumping ends.   But Cadiz is overestimating how much water is recharged into the aquifer.  Cadiz's estimated 10.6 billion gallon recharge rate for this corner of the desert is higher than the rate at which rainfall recharges the groundwater of the Coastal Plain of Orange County.  Anybody that has been to the Cadiz and Fenner Valleys knows that they receive less rain than Orange County.
Sunset at Cadiz Dunes Wilderness Area, with Ship Mountains in the distance.  Cadiz owns some property in this valley, and plans to pump and export groundwater.  Not much rain falls here, so Cadiz almost certainly will pump more water than nature can replace.

Cadiz's math also does not add up when it claims that the groundwater would just evaporate into the desert air if the company did not send it to water golf courses along the coast.  While it is true that groundwater may rise close to a salt flat or dry lake bed and evaporate through the saline surface, depleting the groundwater basin, Cadiz probably overestimate the rate at which this occurs in the desert.  In fact, US Geological Survey studies of evapotranspiration rates at other dry lake beds in California suggest rates are likely much lower.  Cadiz's faulty math ultimately means that it could end up quickly drawing down the groundwater basin faster than nature can keep up.  This can lead to disastrous consequences for the groundwater basin and the wildlife that depend upon it.

Fragile Springs at Risk
Desert wildlife are adapted to the dry environment, but many depend on natural springs that can be found throughout the desert.  A spring can be as small as a slowly trickling ribbon of shallow water that bubbled up from the ground at the base of a desert mountain, but that small amount of water can keep bighorn sheep, mountain lions, bobcats, jackrabbits, eagles, coyotes and migrating birds alive. But that spring depends on groundwater rising up a small channel in the ground. If the groundwater level is pumped too low, that groundwater will no longer feed the spring nor the wildlife that depend upon it.

A blur of a coyote gives chase to prey near Van Winkle Spring.  The spring is located north of where Cadiz plans to pump water for export to Orange County, and supports wildlife in the Mojave National Preserve.
There are at least 28 springs in the area that could be affected by the Cadiz groundwater pumping but the environmental impact report for the Cadiz project hardly analyzes how they could be impacted.  The springs support wildlife in the Mojave National Preserve and recently established Mojave Trails National Monument. In a draft environmental report Cadiz claims that natural springs will not be affected.

One of the closest springs is the Bonanza Spring, located in the Clipper Mountains in Mojave Trails National Monument. The spring supports the ecosystem here and beyond, with migrating birds visiting the spring during long trips north or south.  Another spring is the Van Winkle spring in the Mojave National Preserve, not far from where I photographed the coyote in pursuit above.

Could Lead to Groundwater Collapse
Cadiz's greed could damage the groundwater basin so badly that groundwater levels never recover and, thus, natural springs are extinguished forever. According to the Pacific Institute - an independent group of water experts - over-pumping by Cadiz could lead to irreversible damage to the groundwater basin.  If water is pumped much faster than nature can replace it, the ground settles and compacts, reducing its capacity to store water.

We have seen this before. In Arizona, farms have pumped so much water that a fissure nearly two miles long and 25 feet deep has opened in the Sonoran Desert. In the Pahrump Valley along the California and Nevada border, agricultural pumping of groundwater has led to the land sinking, and cracks opening.  

A fissure in the Sonoran Desert that opened up as a result of over-pumping of groundwater. Photo from kvoa.com
A fissure opened in the desert along the California/Nevada border because of the earth settling as a result of over-pumping of the groundwater basin.  Photo submitted by Bureau of Land Management to the California Energy Commission.
Extensive Well Fields Planned
The Cadiz company would install as many as 34 wells and dig water basins on its property in the middle of the Mojave Trails National Monument.  This probably will also lead to the construction of more maintenance roads and light pollution at night in an corner of the Mojave that is normally known for its dark night skies. The area is also popular for rockhounding, 4x4 touring, and camping because it is largely undisturbed by industrial development.

Cadiz may install as many as 34 water wells across its property in the Mojave Desert.  The property sits in the middle of the Mojave Trails National Monument, just south of Historic Route 66.

Who Gets the Water?
One of several golf courses watered by SMWD.
The Cadiz water would go to the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD), which serves approximately 155,000 customers in the Orange County communities of Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and Talega.  If you have been to these places, you know that their parkways are lined with thirsty landscaping, they are home to at least four large golf courses, and a community built around the man-made Lake Mission Viejo that is supplied not by rainfall but by the SMWD.  The lake loses 500,000 gallons every day to evaporation.

Lush landscaping watered by SMWD.
SMWD currently receives its water from the Metropolitan Water District (which gets most of its water from the Colorado River).  SMWD has made some progress cutting water consumption since drought restrictions were implemented (and after it had signed the contract with Cadiz), and has started to recycle some water for landscaping and to fill Lake Mission Viejo.  But it continues to remain an eager customer of Cadiz water.

What's Next?
After the Trump administration offered its green light to the Cadiz project, the last significant hurdle in the company's way is an agreement with the utility that owns a major aqueduct.  Under Cadiz's proposal, a pipeline will carry the water from Cadiz property to the Metropolitan Water District's (MWD) aqueduct that brings water from the Colorado River to southern California cities. Cadiz  still needs MWD's approval to use the aqueduct.  However, MWD has raised concerns that the Cadiz water could be prone to high levels of chromium, the same carcinogenic compound that poisoned the town of Hinkley (the infamous story told in the movie Erin Brokovich).  You cant blame MWD for not wanting to pollute its aqueduct - and its customers - with a potent carcinogen.  And just this month, a major bond rating company warned water utilities that the Cadiz water export project is fraught with environmental risks that will make it difficult to finance.

But Cadiz is good at doling out political payments to key decision makers.  It has donated to everyone in the political food chain, regardless of political party.  From Washington, to Sacramento, to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. It will be up to us to raise our voices and make sure that rain falling in the Mojave stays there, and doesn't end up in some Orange County swimming pool.

Comments

  1. Great blog post. Thank you for the information. I am part of an effort to get CA district 8 citizens to contact their government officials, specifically Congressman Paul Cook and Senators Feinstein and Harris, to tell them they do not support the Cadiz project. I want to use some of your information here to help explain the issue. Please let me know if you have any concerns with that. We will reference your blog. Thank you.

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  2. I cannot believe the stupidity of these guys. They started pumping the underground water from Lancaster in the 1940's thinking it would never be populated. This causes wells to collapse, disease to run rampant, of which I contracted and due to having lupus, it is a death sentence. They should have to disclose this to people. I am trying to. It is hard to believe they are still doing this. It should be considered as manslaughter. How may have to get sick, and die before they stop. The Solar also messes with our water, attracts the sun, so where is the EPA? The USGS had so much information on this in 1999.

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