Can Water Under the Mojave Desert Help Quench California?

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from Bloomberg Businessweek,

California is parched. The state’s worst drought in decades has left its reservoirs half-naked, if not skeletal. Officials say 17 communities could run out of drinking water this summer; some are considering mandatory rationing; and 500,000 acres in the state may be left fallow. For the first time in its 54-year history, the California State Water Project—the world’s biggest plumbing network and the way millions of state residents get hundreds of billions of gallons of water—is essentially shutting down. In 2012 the project moved 815 billion gallons of fresh water from Northern California’s rivers to 25 million people and a million acres of farmland in the arid central and southern parts of the state. Last year, the driest on record, the system delivered 490 billion gallons, down 40 percent. This year, the planned water distribution is zero.

Two-thirds of California’s 38 million people and most of its $45 billion farm products depend on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain watersheds, imported via thousands of miles of pipelines, canals, and the Colorado River. Although snowfall is up this winter in the Rockies, precipitation in both mountain watersheds has been going down over the last 14 years, raising scary questions for the nation’s most populous state: What if drought is the new normal? Where will California find the water it needs?

Scott Slater is convinced the solution lies underneath the Mojave Desert. His company, Cadiz (CDZI), wants to tap an aquifer beneath 34,000 acres of the eastern Mojave and sell the water to suburbs and subdivisions in the Los Angeles Basin. Cadiz, whose only mission is to sell the desert water, has teamed up with a public water agency in southern Orange County in an audacious proposal to pump 16.3 billion gallons a year toward the coast. Some of it will flow 200 miles from the aquifer. The water will travel through a 43-mile pipeline that Cadiz wants to build along a railroad spur, then merge into the Colorado River Aqueduct into Los Angeles.

Several politicians, ranchers, and environmentalists call Cadiz’s proposal ludicrous. “How can a private company come out here and drain an entire basin of its groundwater for L.A.?” asks Ruth Musser-Lopez, an archaeologist in the Mojave town of Needles, Calif., 60 miles east of Cadiz’s land. “That took thousands of years to seep down from the mountains. Water is just way too precious in the desert to let them take it away.” Some potential beneficiaries of the plan are skeptical, too. “To take that water from the desert and use it to fill Mission Viejo’s lakes? It’s absurd,” says Debbie Cook, the former mayor of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Yet things have gotten dire enough that some Californians are ready to listen.

“The state needs projects like this,” says Slater, 56. He’s written a two-volume textbook on California water law and has litigated some of the state’s biggest water fights in recent years. In addition to running Cadiz, he remains a partner at Denver-based firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Slater’s confident his plan can work. “I want those molecules,” he says. “We’ve harmonized uses in a way that’s balanced and makes sense. This is an environmentally benign project that will help California overcome systemic water shortages.”

The company’s last major water transport scheme, conceived in the mid-1990s, called for storing excess Colorado River water under Cadiz lands, then selling it to coastal communities during droughts. After six years of development and controversy, the Met killed Cadiz’s Colorado storage plan in 2002.

Slater says the desert water bonanza won’t feed unsustainable growth around L.A., but history suggests otherwise.

“The desert aquifer is tied to growth on the southern coast. Why else would a small Orange County water agency do a project in the middle of the desert?” says Conner Everts of the Southern California Watershed Alliance. “We call these ‘zombie water projects’—projects that come back to life when people worry about drought. At some point California is going to have to make water a much more serious part of land-use decisions.”

Past droughts have produced zombie proposals such as bringing icebergs from Alaska by barge and towing acre-size plastic bags filled with water from Northern California rivers. This time around critics are sneering at Governor Brown’s $15 billion plan to bore a pair of 30-mile tunnels east of Sacramento to channel Sierra Nevada runoff to critical agricultural land.

Slater says he’s hoping Cadiz will clear another hurdle in a few weeks, when a state judge in Orange County rules on whether it was appropriate for Santa Margarita, the project’s co-developer and water customer, to lead the environmental review, rather than San Bernardino County, where the impacts will occur.

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