Posted on | January 23, 2012 | 7 Comments
Five years ago, when asked about a plan by Las Vegas to pump groundwater around the Great Basin National Park, Nevadan hydrologists who learned that I was a reporter based in Southern California used to respond, “If you think that’s bad, you should look at Cadiz.”
Nevadans live to insult Californians, but it was said so many times by so many hydrologists that roughly two-and-a-half years ago, I started looking at this worse-than-Vegas Cadiz.
It wasn’t the Spanish port, but a little-known unincorporated pocket of the Californian Mojave just visible in the upper right hand corner of this lovely old map. Thanks to a water project backed by some of the golden state’s leading politicians, even five years ago Cadiz had another meaning. It was hydrology shorthand for “water grab.”
As I began studying it, incredulous dispatches on Cadiz became an early and running theme in this blog. We all know about the seven stages of grief. In my case, writing about Cadiz involved five stages of revulsion: shock gave way to incredulity, then indignation. Determination to fight gradually descended into jaundice. Since those weathered old hydrologists first insisted that I look in my own back yard for disastrous ideas, I have to concede, they were right. Cadiz is to my eyes as bad or worse than anything that Las Vegas has planned for the Great Basin and the way the pillaging of the Californian Mojave has been attempted is worse.
Since I began posting on the subject, officials of the Cadiz project have complained to organizations that so much as link to this site that I am biased. That’s true. I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the groundwater underlying the Mojave Desert should not be mined to support new lawns in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Unlike the comparatively trashed deserts of the Mediterranean region and Africa, the largely intact deserts of the western United States are an international treasure, in spite of Reclamation and nuclear testing. As a reporter seasoned in these baked regions, I’ve also come to believe that this greatest of American inheritances can change, fast and disastrously. The Mojave cannot survive its groundwater being sucked out from beneath it. As such, when I attend the public comment meeting on the Cadiz project being held in Orange County tomorrow night, it will not be as a reporter, but as a committed foe of the Cadiz project. Just what I will say, I am not sure. The task amounts to commenting on the unspeakable.
The first post in June 2009 linked to much of what was then publicly known about the Cadiz groundwater scheme, the work of an English jetsetter and race horse fancier named Keith Brackpool. Among Mr Brackpool’s good friends were a string of politicians either previously employed or vicariously enriched by him, including the former governor of California and current mayor of Los Angeles.
Spotting Mr Brackpool and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraiosa together is to political reporters what Brangelina sightings are to the Hollywood paparazzi. These photos of the pair, plus (thank you, Comedy Gods) Bo Derek, at the Santa Anita Racetrack appeared last summer in the Pasadena Independent.
Ten years ago, Mr Brackpool came very close to embroiling the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in a plan that would mine groundwater from Cadiz-owned land in the San Bernardino desert, near the Mojave National Preserve. This water would be piped from private well fields across roughly 40 miles of federally-owned desert to the Colorado River Aqueduct, dumped in the public drinking water supply of Southern California that is drawn from the Colorado River and wheeled around the Southland by Metropolitan.
Among problems noted by federal agencies called in by Metropolitan to review the plan were that US Geological Survey testing showed high levels of ambient Chromium VI — the carcinogen made famous by Erin Brockovich — in Mojave groundwater. How much of this is due to dumping by gas compressor plants and how much is down to the particular chemistry of remarkably sandy soil conditions is unknown. Then there was the likelihood that soil dried out by pumping could produce dust storms. Big-horned sheep and desert tortoises could be left without all-important desert springs. A strict monitoring plan designed in cooperation with federal hydrologists to prevent over-drafting made tapping Cadiz Inc’s miracle-ocean-under-the-desert such a risky investment that in 2002, Metropolitan dropped out.
Three years ago Mr Brackpool’s Cadiz company saw another way to get its groundwater into Southern California’s public aqueduct operated by Metropolitan, this time without triggering a federal review and avoiding federal input into any monitoring of proposed pumping. The perhaps too flamboyant Mr Brackpool was sidelined as face of the groundwater project and a water lawyer named Scott Slater became the public face of Cadiz, Inc. A new draft environmental review, this time exchanging the safe pumping yield and rain replenishment assessments from government hydrologists with far more generous ones by private consultants. This document is now in circulation with the Santa Margarita Water District as the lead agency.
Click here for a January 19, 2012 PBS SoCal Insider news item about the general manager of the Santa Margarita Water District, who in addition to his annual salary of $370K a year also seems to need top-up income freelancing as a lawyer for other municipal districts that might be interested in Cadiz water.
As Mr Slater explained the new project to the Associated Press recently, they aren’t mining groundwater but wringing moisture from air. “We’re not taking water from anyone,” Slater said. “It sincerely is depriving only the atmosphere of water that would actually evaporate.”
In the event that anyone is interested, what they are actually proposing is sinking deep wells to pump something called the carbonate aquifer rather than more shallow alluvium in a way that the impacts of groundwater mining on the surface would be slower to register for local monitors, that would be potentially more far wide-ranging, unpredictable and irreversible once detectable.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, once the Santa Margarita Water District completes reviewing the Cadiz project, Santa Margarita will also certify the findings. In other words, it stated what it wanted to do, paid people to say that it is safe, and will complete the circle by declaring it to be a good thing.
It would be interesting to know who represented Cadiz and who represented the gaggle of other small water companies beyond Santa Margarita in putting the Mach II Cadiz partnership together. Beyond some admittedly expensive paperwork, the only serious obstacle faced by Cadiz and Santa Margarita in draining the Mojave is how to get this desert groundwater into a public aqueduct operated by Metropolitan on behalf of a Southern Californian citizenry who imagine that they are buying water from the Colorado River. A needle still to thread. According to Metropolitan, it has not yet been asked to consider carrying Cadiz’s water.
*Update 1/24, 10.49pm: The following comment was read at the public comment meeting on the Cadiz Valley Project held on January 24th at 6pm at the Santa Margarita Water District, 26111 Antonio Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA. A further comment meeting will take place Wednesday, February 1 at 6pm at the Joshua Tree Community Center, 6171 Sunburst Street, Joshua Tree, CA