Will the Met wring the desert dry?

  • UNDERGROUND OASIS: Nearly 400 acres of spreading basins, similar to this two-acre test site, would percolate river water down to the aquifer

    Donald G. Rogers
  • Tom Reed

  • Map of Mojave National Preserve

    Diane Sylvain
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

With California's Colorado River binge nearing an end, the state is looking for new ways to bring water to its desert cities. The Metropolitan Water District (the Met) has its eye on the sun-scoured Mojave Desert, where a series of underground aquifers lie waiting to be tapped.

The aquifers are owned by Cadiz Inc., an agribusiness firm whose dealings in peaches, lemons and grapes have been steadily losing money. Cadiz is eager to parlay its 27,000 acres of Mojave Desert land - located just 35 miles from the Colorado River Aqueduct - into a private water empire.

Under a proposed 50-year contract with Cadiz, the Met would pipe its share of Colorado River water from the aqueduct into the aquifers under Cadiz's holdings. The Met would also purchase about 1.5 million acre-feet of native groundwater during the project.

Environmentalists usually support aquifer storage as an alternative to dams and reservoirs, but "this one stinks," says Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club. The aquifers that Cadiz wants to tap are part of a fragile groundwater system that sustains the Mojave National Preserve and five nearby wilderness areas. If the Cadiz project lowers water levels, say environmentalists, the result will be dust storms and threats to desert wildlife on these protected lands.

A sketchy selection

Cadiz was originally one of several storage sites under consideration, and the only one involving a private entity. Some say Cadiz CEO Keith Brackpool's political connections have hurried his proposal along. Brackpool co-chaired the Agriculture and Water transition group under California Governor Gray Davis in 1998, and his role as water advisor to the governor has raised eyebrows among project critics.

Cadiz Inc. has operated in the red the past two years, posting a loss of $22.5 million in 2000. The corporation stands to gain at least $345 million for groundwater sold to the Met, and $27 million each year for groundwater storage. Cadiz and the Met would split the estimated $150 million cost.

The Met says storing water belowground is far less wasteful than holding it in a reservoir, because less will be lost to evaporation. "This project sets a standard," says the Met's Van Ortiz. "The environmental quarter has been beating up the agency for not doing water transfers in the past."

Critics say the efficiency of belowground storage will be offset by economic risks. The project is expensive, requiring an environmental monitoring system, treatment of aquifer water containing background levels of the carcinogen chromium-6, and construction of a pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct. If Cadiz goes bankrupt or changes hands, taxpayers may be stuck with the entire tab.

A desert dustbowl?

An initial report from the Bureau of Land Management and the Met said that environmentalists and other critics had nothing to worry about. The agencies promised that rainfall would refill depleted aquifers and keep surface springs flowing. But additional analysis of aquifer recharge rates told a different story: U.S. Geological Survey data and several other studies of the watershed estimated that the aquifers would recharge 5 to 25 times more slowly than Cadiz's original estimates.

"Cadiz claims, 'Take out a lot, and God will make up the difference,' " says Elden Hughes. Though Cadiz plans to install a series of monitoring wells that would warn of aquifer depletion, environmentalists aren't reassured. "By the time the wells show an impact," says Steven Krefting of the National Parks Conservation Association, "it will be too late to prevent significant damage from occurring."

The NPCA and others say aquifer depletion could leave the region's second-largest herd of bighorn sheep, which relies on aquifer-fed springs, high and dry. They fear that ravens will be attracted to the 390 acres of spreading basins - where river water percolates down to the aquifers - and will prey on desert tortoise hatchlings. Cadiz land lies immediately adjacent to two areas designated as critical habitat for the tortoise, listed as a threatened species.

Over a dozen conservation groups say federal agencies glossed over the project's environmental implications in preparing their initial environmental impact report. These organizations filed and won a lawsuit requesting more time to scrutinize and comment on environmental impacts. "The California Desert Protection Act imposes a duty to make sure the groundwater will not be depleted," says Simeon Herskovits, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. "There is a consensus that very little water could be safely taken out of this system."

Though the final environmental impact statement won't be released until this summer, the board of directors of the Metropolitan Water District voted nearly 2-to-1 in April to move ahead with the proposal. Final approval of the contract with Cadiz is almost certain to provoke a legal challenge from environmentalists.

Kirsten Bovee is a former HCN intern.

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