Desert Water for Coastal Lawns?


If you accept the interpretation of the Santa Margarita Water District -- Orange County, California's second-largest water supplier -- nature has been terribly wasteful with water in the desert. Take, for example, the little bit of rain that falls in the far-away Cadiz Valley, near California’s border with Nevada in the Mojave Desert. About four to 10 inches of it comes down every year, mostly in the winter, but also during brief summer thunderstorms. There’s snow, too, that falls in the mountains and runs down into the valleys. And while some it replenishes deep groundwater basins, nourishes plants and recharges springs, another portion of it just drains away. Or, worse -- it evaporates.

And what isn’t lost to the air, says Santa Margarita’s environmental study, is “lost to the brine zone.” It mingles with the salty desert soil and disappears underground.

So, the proponents of a vast desert water project argue, why not capture that renegade water and put it to “beneficial use”? Use it, that is, to green the lawns of Santa Margarita’s customers in suburban Southern California, or to fill swimming pools on baking Inland Empire days. That’s precisely what the Santa Margarita agency, along with five other small Southern California water districts, intends to do.

“The fundamental purpose” of the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, says a draft environmental study released in December, “is to save substantial quantities of water that are presently wasted” -- water that discharges out of the upper-elevation aquifer and flows to the surface of lower-elevation dry lakes. Without the project, three million acre-feet of fresh water would go to waste over the next 100 years, says the report. That’s why Cadiz, Inc., has pronounced the plan “sustainable.”

Bristol Dry Lake, in the Cadiz Valley. Image courtesy Flickr user Chuck Coker.

You won’t, however, find a desert conservationist who sees it that way. “We think it's a bit ironic that the word ‘conservation’ is the title of this project,” says Seth Shteir, the California Desert representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. “’Conservation’ implies saving something for future generations. What this is, really, is an aggressive scheme to mine groundwater in the Mojave Desert.”

On March 13, the NPCA, in league with more than a dozen other environmental and conservation groups, lashed out against the Cadiz Project with 78 pages of official comments on the water agency's environmental study, assailing the project’s flawed hydrological assessment, its potential impact on the seeps and springs that sustain obligate drinkers like bighorn sheep, and the uncertain consequences of water mining for the desert’s storied deep-rooted plants. (Read the comments document here)

Their comments also call into question the very terms under which the process has gone forward: The Santa Margarita Water District, the document states, should never have led and directed the Cadiz projects’ environmental study. Following the rules of the California Environmental Quality Act, the “lead agency” is one with “general governmental powers such as a city or a county.” The environmental report on Cadiz should have been done by San Bernardino County, which governs the land in which the project resides.

Keith Brackpool, the British entrepreneur who founded Cadiz, Inc., the company that owns some 35,000 acres above the aquifer, knows exactly how much that lead agency business matters. The environmental impact of the Cadiz project has been evaluated by government agencies before, and it frankly didn’t look so good. More than a decade back, Brackpool floated the $150 million plan to Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District as a way to bank the agency’s excess Colorado River water during wet years and pump out native groundwater during prolonged droughts.

That plan failed due primarily to one significant flaw: The 43-mile-long pipeline proposed to convey water from the aquifer to the Colorado Aqueduct would have crossed federal land, which meant federal agencies got to muck around in the hydrological studies. Brackpool and crew had argued that the pumping wouldn’t deplete the aquifer, at least not by much. But in 2001, John Bredehoeft, then a hydrologist with the USGS, found that the company and its backers had overestimated the local rainfall and runoff by at least a factor of 10.

The next year, drought hit the Colorado, obviating the storage part of the Cadiz project. Metropolitan pulled out.

There’s nothing to suggest that this version of Cadiz is any better than the first. There is, however, one significant difference: The pipeline will no longer travel across federal land; instead, Cadiz has secured a route from aquifer to the aqueduct along a private railroad right of way. Now, the only environmental law Cadiz has to comply with now is California’s.

Yet even that might still be enough to do Cadiz in. Now that their official public comment period is over, Santa Margarita and Cadiz can presumably address the criticisms, move forward to a final environmental study, and seek approval from the state’s environmental review board. But the environmental groups’ complaint insists the Cadiz project’s proponents need to start over. And they will likely go to court to make sure they do.

“Look,” Shteir continues, “we’ve got a 3,000-page draft environmental impact report which has raised more questions than provided answers. And we don’t believe the project should go anywhere until those answers are provided.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News.

Image of a signpost in the Cadiz Valley courtesy Flickr user Aquafornia.

Laer Pearce
Laer Pearce
Mar 22, 2012 01:55 PM
    I am a resident of Santa Margarita Water District and am grateful they and the other five water agencies pursuing the project are seeking diversified water portfolios. There is no aquifer here in Southern Orange County, so our water comes from the Colorado River or Northern California. We use this water to sustain ourselves, to cook and clean and mix baby formula - your referring to it as being for our pools and lawns politicizes the discussion and minimizes the importance of having a reliable water supply. Given water's importance, it would be foolish to rely only on already stressed sources.

    Santa Margarita is one of the nation's leading water recyclers; it promotes conservation with programs like turf removal rebates, and it has several stormwater capture and reuse projects and is planning new ones. These alone are not sufficient to ensure a reliable supply, so there is broad local support for the Cadiz project. We understand that the project will not move forward if there is an fatal flaw in the environmental review, but I haven't found one unmitigable impact or flaw in my review of the project design. The charges in your article show a lack of knowledge about the area's hydrology. The aquifer Cadiz plans to tap is a deep one, hundreds of feet below the surface, and even the most deeply rooted desert plant does not draw a molecule of water from it, and all the area springs are fed by snow and rain before water reaches the proposed wellfield.

    Finally, water districts are as much an agency with general governmental powers as a city or county. They have taxing authority through their rates. They can float municipal bonds. They are governed by elected boards and must meet the same reporting and transparency requirements of cities and counties. And they routinely serve as the lead agency on environmental reviews - for reservoirs, pipelines, treatment plants and, yes, groundwater programs.
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Mar 23, 2012 10:58 AM
I applaud SMWD's turf removal program, as well as Orange County's recycling efforts. Every water district should be so forward-thinking. But that doesn't change the fact that no bona fide environmentalist or environmental group describes this project as "sustainable," as do its proponents. —Judith Lewis Mernit, HCN contributing editor
Emily Green
Emily Green
Mar 26, 2012 12:04 PM
The first commenter neglected to mention that he is a paid PR for the Cadiz project without any qualifications to review a long, fatally flawed DEIR that was conducted expressly to keep USGS hydrologists familiar with the target basin from commenting. When the USGS was invited in by the Metropolitan Water District to look at a virtually identical project in 2001, it found fatal flaws, including gross exaggeration of annual recharge. And so Met dropped out. The idea that springs are charged by rainfall flowing over them shows the utter ignorance of the commenter. The parameters in the new DEIR are not accurate and do not begin to how the pumping impacts on public lands, including the Mojave National Preserve. Further, there is no need for Santa Margarita Water District to draw desert groundwater to fill baby's bottles. Insofar as this project will produce "new" water for Orange County, it is expressly to afford new development; if this is not sustainable, then it might be in the best interests of those babies not to do it. You might also want to check on the Chrom VI content of Cadiz groundwater vis a vis goodness for babies. As for rainwater harvesting, one need only look at the SMWD's own vast impermeable parking lot to see how serious it is about that. This project is a profiteering exercise, as was that comment from a paid commenter. Should it be added that the same company donated in excess of $50K to the San Bernardino County Supervisor who allowed this obscene project to be revived?
Emily Green
Emily Green
Mar 26, 2012 01:21 PM
For anyone interested in what USGS hydrologists (and not a Cadiz/Santa Margarita PR) have to say about the proposed pumping, which is virtually unchanged from the first iteration of the project to this new one, this is from the 2000/2001 final EIR/EIS conducted for Metropolitan:

"The review of the Draft Report shows that the watershed model and water-balance studies presented in the Draft Report overestimate the natural recharge to the basin by 5 to 25 times the values estimated
by this review team using similar methods ... The assumptions and methods applied in the development and calibration of both the watershed and ground-water flow models, which are essential for predicting the environmental impacts of the proposed project, are not defensible."

To read more, it can be found online at:[…]/v2_f002.pdf

This project would never be going forward had the Cadiz lawyers who revived the project not excluded federal hydrologists most familiar with the Mojave and used instead estimates from generously rewarded private consultants. The National Parks Conservation Assn has hired an independent hydrologist to review the claims and those comments will be available when the DEIR comments are assembled. But not a drop should be pumped until the USGS is brought in to review overblown Cadiz claims about perennial yield, which were arrived at ostensibly using a USGS model.

Ah, as for the line "Finally, water districts are as much an agency with general governmental powers as a city or county," this is patently untrue. The only governmental jurisdiction that the Santa Margarita Water District, in Orange County, has hundreds of miles away in San Bernardino County is that -- somehow -- the reporting of campaign donations for a SB County Supervisor is done in Rancho Santa Margarita, OC. Could it be connected to serial donations to the SB supervisor by Cadiz?
Mark M Rostenko
Mark M Rostenko
Mar 27, 2012 09:11 AM
Emily Green's very important point bears repeating: Laer Pearce is a PAID SHILL for the industry - please do NOT be fooled by the claims of "residency" and pathetic emotional appeals for the need of water for "baby formula." sorry Laers, but you're not dealing with the average idiot for which your firm is paid to fool into compliance - readers of this publication are well versed on environmental issues... you are a PR firm and as such, WILL SAY ANYTHING YOU'RE PAID TO SAY. therefore, your "assessment" has NO RELEVANCE whatsoever to the issue as it is entirely tainted by your desire to profit from the situation. your comments carry about as much weight as did the tobacco industry's back in the days when they touted the "health benefits" of cigarettes.
Mark M Rostenko
Mark M Rostenko
Mar 27, 2012 10:24 AM
...not to mention that a failure to disclose one's personal vested financial interest in a project speaks volumes about one's integrity and by extension, about the integrity of one's (bought and paid for) viewpoints... i'll leave it to the reader to decide whether it speaks favorably or unfavorably...

..that is, if said reader isn't busy desperately searching for enough water to mix baby formula for his/her desperate, dehydrated and undernourished child... PUMP THAT AQUIFER OR OUR CHILDREN WILL DIE!!! (eye-roll, please...)
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler Subscriber
Mar 27, 2012 02:18 PM
The solution is to stop development ("growth") in areas without adequate and sustainable water. "Adequate and sustainable" means consistently available over time without harming the environment or other water users. Has the Met/Water Dist instituted restrictions on new hookups? If the purveyor cannot "produce" new water via conservation or purchase of water from others (e.g., ag), that is the logical action to take, not sucking water out of an aquifer that clearly is not sustainable.

Permitting of new development is supposed to be rejected if adequate water is not available; that is the law in every jurisdiction I've looked at so far, including California. It is time for this "rule of law" to actually be enforced, especially in arid and semi-arid locations. Even here in Western Washington some areas are short of water!

I have zero interest in the particulars of a So Cal water fight.
Tom Darnell
Tom Darnell Subscriber
Mar 27, 2012 02:31 PM
It is interesting that the fastest growing areas in the US are areas with the least amount of water. Perhaps people should move to the water.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Mar 27, 2012 03:57 PM
@Tom, yea, especially since climate change is supposed to hit the west so hard. Hey, folks, time to reverse those U-Hauls and go back to St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Tom Darnell
Tom Darnell Subscriber
Mar 27, 2012 04:37 PM

Back in the "old" days Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and several other Eastern states produced most of the apples in the US, dryland.

Starting around the late 1800-1900's, apple orchards, irrigated and often in desert areas,were being planted in Washington State. WA currently has about 153,000 acres of apples and produces most of the nation's crop, yet the majority of Americans, estimated to be about 60 per cent, live east of the Mississippi River.

An honest and open discussion is over due re. the advantages and disadvantages of producing crops closer to the major population centers.

Also assuming each WA apple orchard used 36 inches of water/acre/year, which is probably a little low, WA apple growers are using 150 billion gallons of water a year.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Mar 27, 2012 06:09 PM
Indeed, Tom. Especially with the price of gas rising again, climate change/CO2 and related issues with longer hauling.
Mar 27, 2012 08:36 PM
I really appreciate all the comments, except for the paid shill's of course. He should be ashamed of himself. I'm ever so relieved that there are savvy folks out there looking at these grabs with fine-toothed combs.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Mar 28, 2012 10:13 AM
How many ways can you say 'stupid'? Urban areas must learn to live within their water means. Until Tucson's acquifers became too polluted with TCE and other hydrocarbons from Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon), DMAFB and sloppy drycleaners, we had great water. We also had no restrictions on lawns, pools, water features, or toilets. That Tucson Water, and company, sat on the information until cancer clusters emerged on the south side of town doesn't bode well for the rest of us. Underground water flows northwards through the city to the Rillito, carrying the pollutants from well to well. We're now dependent on the Central Arizona Project, the last sipper on a long straw. In the end, we will be displaced by Phoenix, even if the Navajo Nation doesn't assert its rights to Colorado River water. How do you tell a million people they're screwed?

The problem of robbing Peter to pay Paul is that Paul is a spendthrift. We water-conscious Tucsonans are conserving so well that Tucson Water must raise our rates to ensure its own supply...of income. But Phoenix? Las Vegas?

Robbing Peter must come at a price, and that price is tight-fisted water conservation. Every municipality sucking from the Colorado River has an obligation to ensure that the Colorado River flows all the way to Mexico. Water is life in the West, but to treat it as power and hold downstream neighbors hostage? That never ends well.

In some ways, my sense of justice would rejoice if the Navajo Nation, furthest upstream on the Colorado, asserts its rights to the detriment of us downstream. We must live within our means.
Mar 28, 2012 12:38 PM
Deb, excellent comments. It would indeed be a small measure of justice for the Navajo Nation to claim what was stolen. Karma coming 'round indeed.
Mark M Rostenko
Mark M Rostenko
Mar 28, 2012 12:48 PM
"Urban areas must learn to live within their water means."

WHAT? no they don't! we're AMERICANS for chrissake! we get to do whatever we want, whenever and wherever we want to and we get to take and waste however much it pleases us to do so!

sarcasm, of course... but yes, EXCELLENT post and points, Deb... TERRIFIC. nailed it...
Emily Green
Emily Green
Mar 28, 2012 12:54 PM
So many good points. The problem as I see it is that the definition of "beneficial use" (man beneficial / nature not so much) is hopelessly outdated, allowing clearly disastrous policies to be pursued. Cadiz is a 19th century idea being pursued in the 21st, though that may not be fair to the 19th century, when at least the likes of Mulholland used gravity-fed instead of fossil-fuel charged pumps.
Mar 28, 2012 12:59 PM
We're acting as if we're still in the wild west of grabbing land and resources in limitless supply. As if the world is there for the taking. When will we learn?
John Donaldson
John Donaldson
Apr 02, 2012 05:09 PM
The tried and true cliche of the West is as clear here as it has ever been. Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.