A private company, Cadiz Inc. (Cadiz), has revived plans to mine groundwater underlying land in the delicate Eastern Mojave Desert. This project raises fundamental questions about how we manage our precious water resources, and in particular, whether in the 21st century it is appropriate, or even necessary, to use renewable water resources in a nonrenewable and unsustainable way, for short-term profit.
The idea for the Cadiz project is simple: mine groundwater faster than nature refills it and sell it to urban centers in Southern California for profit. The full proposal seems more complicated -- the owners might try to temporarily replace the lost groundwater with extra water from the Colorado River, if it is ever available (which is highly unlikely), but they propose to pump out this water and sell it, too, so the economics of the project really just depend on the water removed through unsustainable groundwater mining. Without that water, the project fails economically.
The project is located in the desert of southern California, east of Los Angeles and San Diego, in an area with very low precipitation. The owners intend to remove at least 50,000 acre-feet of water a year (and if they can get away with it, 75,000 acre-feet per year in the early years) for 50 years and sell it to local water agencies, including the Santa Margarita Water Agency (SMWA), Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Suburban Water System, Golden State Water Company, Jurupa Community Services, and California Water Service Company. Scientists estimate that nature, in contrast, only refills the basin with around 5,000 and 32,000 acre-feet per year, with most independent estimates at the very low end. This means the groundwater levels will drop and drop, like taking more water out of a bathtub than you put in. This is, simply, unsustainable.
If there were no adverse consequences of this kind of water mining, and if all that mattered was money, then perhaps using up this stock of water and turning it into a private good would make sense -- at least to the project owners. But there are adverse consequences for other humans and for the local environment. This is cut-and-run water management: take a non-renewable resource that will last a short time, turn it for a profit, and leave a degraded landscape, mimicking the classic boom-and-bust cycles that characterized much of the mining industry in the western U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Here are some of the other consequences:
Finally, there are natural springs in nearby valleys that may be connected to the groundwater basin in Cadiz. In a remarkable grammatical sleight-of-hand, the draft environmental impact report states that a field survey done by their consultants concluded that "there is no information demonstrating a physical connection of the identified springs in the local mountains to [Cadiz] groundwater." Note the wording: "there is no information." They use that to discount any risks to local springs. But absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence.
An honest assessment of the science would conclude that, at best, we don't know if there is a connection. And in fact the hydrologic assessment does show that if there is any connection, the mining of groundwater would ultimately affect the springs, perhaps long after pumping began. This means that if there is a connection, once it is ultimately noticed, it would be too late to prevent the springs from drying up.
We need new thinking about water in California and new innovative solutions. We must modify how we use water, and we must find new sources of supply. But the Cadiz Project is old thinking, based on the pillage-and-run philosophy of the past centuries, where water was seen as a resource to be mined and consumed, not managed in a sustainable way. This project is an insult to the notion of sustainability, to the efforts to protect the Eastern Mojave's beauty and unique nature, and to the idea that resource development should respect more than just narrow economic gain. The good news is there are excellent alternatives, including recycling and reuse of water, improved efficiency of use by our cities and farms, smarter and renewable groundwater use and recharge projects, and even desalination of brackish waters or the ocean if the economics and environmental challenges can be properly overcome. Cadiz might have made some sense a century ago when we didn't know better, but today it is neither appropriate for California nor necessary, and it should be cancelled.
Dr. Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute
[A public comment hearing on Cadiz will be held tonight, Tuesday, January 24 at 6:00 p.m. at SMWD, 26111 Antonio Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita. Another will be held Wednesday, February 1 at 6:00 p.m. at the Joshua Tree Community Center.]
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