Article courtesy of Aaron Orlowski | June 7, 2015 | The Orange County Register | Shared as educational material
Two hundred miles east of Orange County, billions gallons of water percolate through 1,300 square miles of dirt to a pair of dry lake beds. Thousands of years pass between the time snow falls on the 7,000-foot-high mountains in the Mojave Desert and when the water rises to the sand’s surface about 600 feet above sea level.
There, it evaporates into the dry air at a rate of 32,000 acre-feet a year.
As California’s drought enters its fourth summer, government officials and enterprising citizens are looking further and further afield for new water supplies. Environmentalists question the wisdom of tapping new sources – such as drawing fresh water from the ocean – when so much is currently wasted.
Mining desert groundwater, as far-fetched as it may seem, seems among the most plausible additions to the region’s existing sources of imported water: the Colorado River, and State Water Project – which transfers water from Northern California to Southern California. But, like many grand water schemes, this one is attracting its share of detractors.
In the 1980s, Cadiz Water Inc. started buying up 45,000 acres of land in eastern San Bernardino County. A speculative play in the water market turned into a series of highly litigated proposals in the 1990s and 2000s. A third iteration of the project costing $200 million could break ground as soon as 2016, assuming lawsuits fall in Cadiz’s favor.
The project: Intercept the groundwater before it reaches the dry lake beds and pipe it 43 miles underneath an existing railroad track to the Colorado River Aqueduct, and from there to Southern California showers and lawns.
In the dusty sand surrounding one of the dry lakes – about 14 miles long and 4 miles wide and also called Cadiz – individual scrub plants grow in what looks like a patchwork grid. Where the streaky, bone-white sand of the dry lake starts, all plant growth stops.
The dry lake is covered in a calcium chloride crust less than an inch thick. Step on it, and you’ll likely break through to a soupy, sandy mixture beneath that contains nine times more salt and minerals than seawater.
The water beneath is a pale, bright Caribbean blue, which looks the perfect color to cool your feet or dip a sweaty hand, especially in the hundred-plus degree heat of the Mojave Desert. So dense is the sodium chloride – with smaller amounts of calcium, magnesium and sulfate – that the hypersaline water can burn your skin.
“It’s so corrosive it’ll take the skin off your arm,” said Terry Foreman, a senior hydrogeologist for CH2M Hill who has worked on the Cadiz project.
For the past century, Delaware Tetra Technologies has mined the dry lake beds for salt and other minerals. Bulldozers dig troughs through the sand, which fill with water that then evaporates, leaving the brine behind.
The company sued Cadiz in 2012 over its Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project. Cadiz says it intends to “save” the millenia-old water by capturing it before it reaches the dry lake beds. Evaporated water is wasted water, the company says.
For three decades, Cadiz has operated a small agriculture business, growing lemons, grapes and melons on as much as 1,200 acres. Field workers are testing squash and other vegetables on a small plot to see if they can grow in the Mojave heat.
Santa Margarita signs
The company’s real business, though, is water.
Cadiz CEO Scott Slater, a water lawyer, refers often to the “highest and best” use of water, and agriculture isn’t it. Sending it to high-paying urban customers in Orange County and the rest of Southern California, evidently, is.
In south Orange County, Santa Margarita Water District has signed a contract for 5,000 acre-feet per year, with an option for 10,000 more. Cadiz has reserved 20 percent of the water for San Bernardino County water suppliers, if they want it.
Seven other water agencies have written letters of intent, including Suburban Water Systems, which supplies parts of Buena Park and La Habra; city of Indio; and Golden State Water Co., which serves Cowan Heights, Cypress, Garden Grove and other places.
Last week, Slater hosted a tour of the Cadiz operation. As a charter plane took off from John Wayne Airport and flew over Newport’s Back Bay, Slater compared allowing storm water to discharge into the ocean – which many environmentalists would like to prevent – to allowing groundwater to evaporate. That water should be put to use, under almost any circumstance, because tapping it would cause little or no harm, he says.
“That would be like looking at the Santa Ana River and saying, under what circumstances would you want to discharge this water into the ocean?” Slater asked. “We’re intercepting the water that’s running naturally down the hill” before it gets to the dry lakes.
Cadiz’s project will use up to 34 pumps to suck 50,000 acre-feet per year out of the aquifer for 50 years, enough to provide water for 100,000 homes across urban Southern California. To get the water to the coast, Cadiz would need to work with Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the water wholesaler for the region.
Metropolitan has hesitated to work with Cadiz, going so far as to vote down a previous iteration of the project in 2002 that would have stored water in the aquifer. Adding to the animosity, Cadiz sued Metropolitan, but dropped the expensive suit just before it went to trial.
To allow Cadiz water in its aqueduct, Metropolitan says Cadiz would need to pay a fee and ensure its water meets Metropolitan’s quality standards. There would also have to be capacity for the water in the aqueduct.
“If all the applicable requirements are satisfied, Metropolitan might be in a position to transport Cadiz water,” Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir said in an email.
Cadiz would have to clean up its water, which has naturally occurring chromium-6, a carcinogen. Chromium-6 levels in Cadiz’s water are at 8 to 14 parts per billion, depending on the well tested. To get levels below the 10 parts per billion state drinking-water standard, Cadiz says it will treat the water at a cost of $42 to $87 per acre-foot using a new technology.
“We’ve tested the technology at two locations, and it’s by far the lowest cost of any (chromium-6) treatment that I’ve seen,” said Lee Odell, lead water technologist with CH2M Hill.
From the air, you can see streams of greenery where rivulets form during rainstorms in the desert. But the billions of gallons of water seeping through the sediment underneath are invisible. It seems like the last place you’d find a sustainable water source.
And many environmentalists say it is.
Cadiz’s hydrologists say the aquifer recharges at least as fast as the dry lake beds lose water – or 32,000 acre-feet a year. Other estimates, however, are significantly lower. In an analysis, the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group, examined estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey and independent hydrologists that put the recharge rate as low as 5,000 acre-feet per year.
“The whole merit of the (Cadiz) project is on the recharge rates,” said Newsha Ajami, who wrote the Pacific Institute report as a senior researcher there in 2012, and who now is the urban water policy director at Stanford University. “So the higher the recharge rate, the higher chance they can sell it as a sustainable project.”
The aquifer won’t recover for decades after Cadiz is done with the project, Ajami said. “They’ll be done with their project and they’ll move on. They’ll have made their money.”
Environmentalists also say desert ecosystems depend on the groundwater Cadiz plans to tap, and that springs filled with plants that support bobcats and birds will be affected.
“It’s going to draw a lot of water out of the aquifer and the areas that currently have a lot of vegetation with springs will go dry, and the vegetation will wither and the birds that rely on it will die or go away,” said Drew Feldmann, the chairman of the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.
But Cadiz hydrologists say drawing down the aquifer at the Fenner Gap will not affect springs in the mountains thousands of feet higher in elevation and miles away. The closest spring is 11 miles from Cadiz’s pumps.
Even if Cadiz is right and the aquifer recharges 32,000 acre-feet a year, that’s less than the 50,000 acre-feet Cadiz wants to pump. Cadiz justifies the overdraft with a tricky bit of hydrology. As the pristine mountain water slowly migrates toward the dry lakes, it eventually runs into minerals and becomes hypersaline.
Cadiz plans to intercept water before that happens by sinking wells upstream from the dry lakes. And by pumping at a rate faster than the aquifer recharges, Cadiz plans to tug water back from the brink, before it becomes hypersaline.
After 50 years, all the water migrating through the Fenner Gap would be intercepted, the company says. Millions of acre-feet of hypersaline water would remain under the dry lakes, enough for the miners to use for another 1,000-plus years, the company says.
With the hydrological flow to the dry lakes stymied, the basin could then be used for water storage, what Cadiz calls phase two. The aquifer could take in water during wet years and dispense it during dry years – essentially the plan Cadiz proposed with Metropolitan in the early 2000s, and which Metropolitan rejected.
Justifying O.C. building
In 2012, environmental groups sued to stop the project, and in 2014 an Orange County judge sided with Cadiz. The groups, led by the Tuscon-based Center for Biological Diversity, have since appealed, and both sides have submitted court briefs.
The project will never be approved, predicts Adam Keats, a former Center for Biological Diversity attorney who remains the chief counsel for the groups. The Bureau of Land Management won’t permit the piping to transport the water to the Colorado River Aqueduct, he says; Metropolitan won’t accept the water in its pipe.
“This is a joke being played on the public by the lawyers running this case that have been hired by Cadiz,” Keats said. “There is nothing real about the water in the ground. This game is being played by a bunch of hedge fund managers on Wall Street.”
Assuming Cadiz wins the litigation, it intends to sell the water at $960 per acre-foot. Of that, $300 will go to infrastructure and $100 will go to operations, maintenance and other costs. The rest will go to investors, who will get a 7 percent to 8 percent return, the company says.
The $960 price for retail water agencies will be comparable to Metropolitan’s $1,000 per acre-foot rate.
Cadiz’s critics contend that the water will be used to justify additional development in south Orange County, at the expense of the environment at the source of the water and at its endpoint.
“We can’t sustain the kind of developments we’ve had over the last 50 years because it takes too much resources. We don’t have resources. We don’t have the water,” said Kim Floyd, the conservation chair of the San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club. “The drought is going to help us come to grips with this.”
Santa Margarita Water District General Manager Dan Ferons says all the planned development in his district – which includes 14,000 new homes in Rancho Mission Viejo, along with existing customers in Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and parts of Mission Viejo and San Clemente – will rely on sources of water already acquired.
Those who oppose the Cadiz project on development grounds probably wouldn’t support any new water project, Ferons said.
“There’s nothing wrong with that perspective, but the question is what’s the alternative? What would they rather have us do? Is it just to not have any more people?” Ferons said. “California and Orange County is programmed to have new growth. Regardless of whether this new project comes in, there’s going to be growth.”
Slater, the Cadiz CEO, says that just because his company offers more water doesn’t mean cities and agencies have to take it.
“What’s the dream and vision for California? What you develop depends on what that dream is,” Slater said, shifting his gaze away the Mojave on the flight back to Orange County.
“A declining economy, a less robust life – I think that’s the wrong way. When you have an opportunity and it hurts no one, you have to execute, because if you can’t do that, you can’t do anything.”