A plan to pump groundwater from beneath the desert and send it to thirsty cities in southern California has attracted a rather unusual group of opponents, including a Republican congressman, a Democratic senator, conservation groups, a mining company, a labor union, and ranchers. Now the latest wrinkle in the debate involves a proposal for steam train excursion trips into the Mojave Desert.
As is often the case, the pros and cons of the project sound vastly different, depending on which side you choose to believe.
According to the company proposing the project, "The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project is designed to capture and conserve billions of gallons of renewable native groundwater flowing beneath our property in California’s Mojave Desert that is currently being lost to evaporation and salt contamination at nearby dry lakes. Through the active management of the aquifer system and employing a state-of-the-art groundwater protection program, the Project will reduce the loss of groundwater to evaporation from the dry lakes, put this water to beneficial use and create a reliable water supply for Southern California."
Opponents Say Project Impacts Are Seriously Underestimated
Not so fast, says a seemingly improbable list of opponents, who question claims by Cadiz, Inc. that the pumping of "billions of gallons" of groundwater from the area won't impact nearby cities, ranches, national parks and a long-running mining operation.
A key point in the debate is just how "renewable" the aquifer might actually be, once large amounts of water are pumped out of the ground and moved to coastal cities. Skeptical opponents hired their own consultants to analyze claims by project supporters that natural recharge of the aquifer was adequate to replace the water that would be removed.
That report says supporter's recharge estimates are greatly overstated, and impacts from the lower water table could persist for anywhere from 50 to several hundred years, even after pumping eventually ceased.
Additional concerns by opponents include impacts of reduced groundwater on desert vegetation and on springs in both the Mojave National Preserve and on private lands. The springs are essential for wildlife populations and ranching operations, and the balance between desert plants and soil moisture is a delicate one. The plants and their roots help stabilize the soil in this very arid region; lose the plant cover, and the result could be serious dust storms that would impact the entire region.
Plan Involves Billions of Gallons of Water
The issues, as usual, are complicated, but the proposal in a nutshell involves company plans to drill several dozen wells on land it owns or leases and pump some 50,000 acre-feet of water annually from the aquifer that underlies one of the driest areas of the country. Each acre-foot equals about 325,900 gallons of water, so do the math if you want, but that total in billions of gallons is an amount most of us can't really comprehend. A 43-mile pipeline would then transport the water westward to join with an existing aqueduct that brings water from the Colorado River to cities near the coast.
Another part of the dispute centers around whether Cadiz, Inc. in fact actually owns the rights to all of the water in question, and that in turn involves the fact that the flow of water into and out of an aquifer is no respecter of man-made boundaries on the surface.
Local Congressman Voices His Concerns
Among those questioning the project are U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley), who in a June 12 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said he had "serious concerns" regarding the project. “A project of this scale has the potential to seriously harm the environment and residents of the Mojave Desert if additional testing isn’t completed. That’s why I’ve requested a thorough federal review to ensure that we operate with facts, not flawed assumptions,” Rep. Cook wrote.
“We applaud Representative Cook for taking a stand in calling for federal examination of this water mining proposal,” said David Lamfrom, California Desert Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Fatal flaws were identified when the Cadiz Project was proposed 10 years ago," Mr. Lamfrom said, "and it is currently being challenged in court by the National Parks Conservation Association and partner organizations, for the rightful concerns expressed by our elected officials and community neighbors – as well as for its potential impact to Mojave National Preserve, one of the largest national parks in the continental United States."
This Issue Brings Rare Agreement Across Party Lines
Representative Cook joins U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, who has expressed similar reservations, proving that water is so vital to everyone's interests that it even transcends current political divisions in Washington.
The site for the proposed wells lies roughly halfway between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, so you'd expect opposition to this project from various conservation groups. You can read details of their objections here, but some other voices joining the fray are not always aligned with organizations such as the National Parks Conservation Association, the Mojave Desert Land Trust and the Sierra Club.
Those opponents include the Laborers International Union of North America; Rob Blair, whose family has ranched in the area since 1913; and the National Chloride Company of America, which has operated a large salt mining plant in the area for fifty years.
The plant manager says, “This project seems eerily reminiscent of the Old West, when ranchers upstream deprived those downstream of water critical for their herds. But this time, it’s the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project that stands to block water from our long-standing mining operation and run us out of business."
Will Old Transportation Technology Determine the Outcome?
That's an interesting group of opponents to the project, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when the latest development in the issue involves something that seems pretty unrelated to a massive water development project: a proposal by Cadiz, Inc. to begin running excursion trips into the Mojave Desert on trains pulled by steam locomotives.
In a press release on September 19, Cadiz Inc. announced "that it has entered into a new trackage rights agreement with the Arizona & California Railroad Company that will facilitate the development of regularly scheduled steam train excursions through the celebrated Mojave Desert between Cadiz, California and Parker, Arizona, which would be one of the longest steam train excursion routes in the United States."
If you're a bit puzzled by the connection, you'll find it in the next sentence of the press release: "The proposed new steam train operation, named the Cadiz Southeastern Railway, will be powered by water made available from the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery & Storage Project ...."
The nexus of train trips to a major water project may still seem a bit fuzzy, so further explanation comes from a response to this idea from the National Parks Conservation Association:
"This new proposal is the latest attempt by the company to meet one of the criteria stated by the Department of Interior, that the company’s proposed 43-mile pipeline along the railroad right-of-way must have a direct impact to the rail system, in order to avoid a comprehensive federal review and involvement of the United States Geological Survey."
One Group Calls the Train Plan "A Mirage"
The NPCA's statement continues, “Today’s announcement by Cadiz Inc. to create the Cadiz Southeastern Railway is as big of a mirage as the company’s use of the word ‘sustainable’ in its plans to drain 16 billion gallons of water per year from the Mojave desert to send to Riverside, Los Angeles, and Orange County Water District.”
“Cadiz Inc. states its steam train excursions would provide views of Mojave National Preserve and desert wilderness areas; yet, the Cadiz Water Project stands to forever damage these very landscapes. What’s more, the town of Cadiz itself is located more than two hours away from Palm Springs or other desert destinations; essentially requiring travelers to drive out of their way, to take a ride on a steam train to nowhere.”
You can read the full text of the Cadiz, Inc. train announcement here and make your own judgment about the company's glowing claims of the proposed railroad's potential boost for the local economy.
Some Interesting Questions About the Proposed Train Operation
If approval for the pipeline were to be granted based on the steam train operation, details of that connection are not yet clear. How often would trains have to run to justify the pipeline - daily, weekly, monthly? What would happen to the pipeline's approval to use the right-of-way if those trains stopped running altogether in the future, once the water is flowing to customers on the California coast?
It's hard to see the government turning off the tap at that point, so there seem to be good reasons for skepticism about the long-term validity of this latest development.
Will this latest idea tip the decision process in the water company's favor, or will opponents prevail? Based on recent history, the final outcome of this fight is a long way down the track.