Commenting on the unspeakable

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.

Click here for some choice remarks out of Interior agencies asked to review the proposal during the first, federally-supervised environmental impact study

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


7 Responses to “Commenting on the unspeakable”

  1. David Zetland
    January 24th, 2012 @ 1:24 am

    Self-deception can go deep, but it can also be dangerous for the rest of us. (Many examples, but Bush II’s “see a good man in Putin’s eyes” is a clean example.)

  2. BMGM
    January 24th, 2012 @ 9:00 am

    Even if he was “taking water out of the air”, evapotranspiration is a vital part of our hydrologic cycle and local weather and climate. That will have a region-wide impact. Where is his EIS for that stunt?

  3. C
    January 25th, 2012 @ 2:52 am

    “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.”

    Well, Scott Slater, for one. And, yes, I know you mentioned him as the new face (aka the President and General Counsel) of Cadiz.

    But he is concurrently a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP–who happens to be to counsel to Golden State Water Company. GSWC is one of the planned buyers of Cadiz water. I’m not 100% sure BHFS is GC to GSWC, but they sure do represent them on a lot of issues.

    There is probably a way out of the conflict of interest (i.e. have another firm rep GSWC on buying Cadiz water or *maybe* create a wall within the firm), but it certainly doesn’t smell right.

  4. "Rango" at Save Our Springs (SOS)
    January 26th, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    DEMAND EXTENSION ON PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD UNTIL AFTER PUBLIC HEARINGS HELD IN NEEDLES, GOFFS, HAVASU LANDING AND SAN BERNARDINO…THE PUBLIC THAT WILL BE MOST IMPACTED BY THE DOWN DRAFT. Adequate scoping in these communities has not been accomplished. This public has not been notified, particularly concerning the impact of increased atmospheric heat and drying due to decrease in desert evaporation. Such hearings will require announcements and further delays. Contact Mayor Ed Paget and Council Members in these communities and voice your concern. These communities are being sold a bill of goods–empty promises of jobs and revenue. Delay and Defeat…we need your help to implement this tactic. Request copies of the EIR…more costs for the proponents.

  5. "Rango" at Save Our Springs (SOS)
    January 26th, 2012 @ 1:21 pm


  6. "Rango" at Save Our Springs (SOS)
    January 31st, 2012 @ 12:50 am

    Letter to the Desert Star, Needles, CA
    Dear Editor,

    February 1st, at 6 p.m., a public hearing will be held at the Joshua Tree Community Center (6171 Sunburst) concerning proposed groundwater mining that threatens the communities along the Colorado River including Needles.

    The “Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery & Storage Project,” would extract 50 to 75,000 acre feet of East Mojave groundwater and divert it west to Orange and LA Counties via the Colorado River Aqueduct. Potential customers for the water are five Southern Californian water companies, led by the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) ( for Project Documents). The project has been designed to make it appear that SMWD has jurisdiction and that scrutiny by federal agencies is unnecessary, but the Park Service and BLM would be shamefully negligent and derelict in duty not to perceive the potential for adverse impact upon surrounding public land and resources.

    Impacts from this project threaten our local economy, water and air quality. We learned during the “nuclear dump” war that the aquifers to the west of us in the East Mojave are connected and that they are indeed connected with the underground flow of water into our Needles watershed. The massive extraction of water in Cadiz threatens to diminish our groundwater and the springs to the west of us that supply wildlife. Where the underground water surfaces and evaporates at “dry lakes” such as Cadiz, Danby and Amboy is considered by proponents to be “wasted water.” Those of us who live here and use swamp coolers know that evaporation has an important function in the desert. Evaporative cooling makes vegetation and life itself possible.

    Also threatening, the possibility that the injection of East Mojave water via Cadiz pumping into the LA bound canal could provide “credits” that could be exchanged for Lake Mead water that could then be sold to Las Vegas. If this happens…we may expect further lowering of our river between Lake Mead and Lake Havasu…definitely a federal action subject to review in an Environmental Impact Statement, not just an EIR.

    Please do not be swayed by empty promises of jobs and revenue from this reckless Cadiz water heist—out-of-town contractors stand by to earn profits from well and pipe installation. This water is essential to our own community growth which stands to loose by eventual desert warming, ruination of agriculture here and rare plant life in the East Mojave mountains, down drafts of our precious water resources which currently flow into our watershed naturally and a lowering of the River shoreline.

    Please tell your friends, neighbors, local federal land managers, city and tribal council members, mayor and other leaders to attend the Joshua Tree hearing with their questions and demand for hearings in Needles, Lake Havasu, Bullhead City, Havasu Landing, Laughlin and Goffs so that our local concerns and objections can be heard. Can’t attend the meeting? Please copy this letter and send your objections and request for 60 day review extension beyond 2/13 and further hearings to: SMWD Administration Office, 26111 Antonio Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688.

    Ruth Musser-Lopez

  7. EmilyGreen
    January 31st, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    I’m not sure why a letter to an unaffiliated newspaper has been copied to this site, but it has enough fresh information from the author, a Needles-based protestant and the archaeologist behind, to merit leaving. However, the allusion to Las Vegas and Lake Mead rings no bells here at Chance of Rain. Please do not construe allowing this latest comment to stand as agreement that Vegas is somehow in cahoots with Cadiz over river for groundwater credits. I know of no such enterprise.

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