Desert Water Marketing Plan Nears Key Vote

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) could vote as early as June on Cadiz Inc.’s unprecedented proposal to store water under its privately owned desert land for resale to municipal customers.
“No water project of this size has ever been undertaken between a public agency like the MWD and a private company,” said Jane Kelly, director of Public Citizen’s California office, who called the upcoming vote “an issue of mind-boggling consequences.” [See Terrain, Fall 2000, Fall 2001.]
Santa Monica–based Cadiz wants to build a 35-mile pipeline from the MWD’s Colorado River Aqueduct through the eastern Mojave Desert, transferring wet-year agricultural runoff into aquifer storage approximately 15 miles south of the Mojave National Preserve.
Cadiz also would draw up to 1.5 million acre-feet of native water over 50 years from aquifers under its 27,000 desert acres.
During dry years, it would sell native water and charge fees for stored aqueduct water to MWD and its 17 million customers.
“If water is made into a marketplace commodity, the public will lose all control over this resource,” said Kelly. “If you think what Enron did to electricity was bad, wait until you see what Cadiz could do to water.”
In April, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was expected to uphold its final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) allowing Cadiz to build its pipeline on the border of two wilderness areas.
Environmentalists, who are now lobbying the 37-member MWD board, have blasted the BLM’s findings.
Cadiz and the MWD claim they can extract 70,000 acre-feet of the native groundwater per year harmlessly; the US Geological Survey puts the natural recharge rate near 5,000 acre-feet per year.
Overdraft could dry up springs, causing massive dust storms over the 100 square miles around Bristol and Cadiz lakes; and jeopardize desert bighorn sheep and the endangered desert tortoise, said Bob Ellis of the conservation group Desert Survivors.
BLM, claiming a lack of scientific consensus on recharge rates, proposes a “Groundwater Monitoring and Management Plan” to prevent overdrafting.
“It’s insane to try and build this entire project with no guidelines in place to protect the ecosystem and aquifer,” said Public Citizen’s Kelly. “The MWD could spend over $100 million on the pipeline and discover a shortage of groundwater.”
MWD Vice President for External Affairs Adan Ortega said a technical review panel would annually limit extraction of native water to safe levels, and MWD would voluntarily draw only stored aqueduct water “for the first 15 years,” as it weans itself off Colorado River surplus.
“[But] we would have to prepay for 30,000 acre-feet of indigenous water over 50 years. [If that’s not available,] our board would want some security from that loss.”
Southern California consumers could find themselves paying higher rates for “a big ill-informed investment,” said Ellis.
MWD, which has invested $2 million in the plan so far, would pay at least $75 million to build the facilities, and up to $800 million dollars for the water, Ortega said.
Should the MWD vote for approval, the Eugene, Oregon-based Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) will sue the US Department of the Interior to block the current version of the project, said WELC attorney Simeon Herskovits. But Public Citizen said the plan is lobbying MWD to make sure it doesn’t get that far.
Updates: Public Citizen: (510) 663-0888, To contact MWD board members, call (213) 217-6000.

Comments are closed.