Peter Gleick: Mining California Groundwater – The Cadiz Project

A private company, Cadiz Inc. (Cadiz), has revived plans to mine groundwater underlying land in the delicate Eastern Mojave Desert. This project revives 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.

Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.

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:

  • The water supply is unsustainable – it is not a permanent source of water and new sources would have to be found when it is no longer economical to pump.
  • The project produces water that is already more expensive than saving the same amount of water through improving urban conservation and efficiency programs.
  • Other local landowners and businesses believe their water availability or quality will be affected by the project in ways neither fully understood nor mitigated by Cadiz.
  • There are unresolved questions about the quality of the water and how the project might worsen water quality for other users over time.
  • And perhaps most important, water in the desert is a rare thing, and the desert pools, ephemeral seeps, natural springs, and playas support delicate ecosystems dependent on the ability of groundwater to reach the surface. This project would draw down that groundwater, leading to the inevitable disappearance of surface water with highly uncertain, poorly understood, but almost certainly negative ecological consequences. And even the project owners admit in their draft Environmental Impact Report (dEIR) that we don’t know enough about the science to fully understand the consequence for centuries to come – long after they’ve left the scene.

In a mathematical sleight of hand, the project argues that water is “saved” by the project because it might reduce evaporative losses when water ponds on the surface during some wet periods. Yet it is precisely this water that local ecosystems rely upon for survival. Another piece of mathematical magic is the claim that the project is actually sustainable because they assume the project life is 100 years long: thus they pump like mad for the first 50 years and take their money and leave, acknowledging that the groundwater might or might not recharge to its original levels over the next 50 years after pumping stops. That’s like saying that fossil fuels are renewable, because nature might make them again in the future. Under the lower (and perhaps more accurate) estimates of natural recharge, there is a real risk of permanent damage to the groundwater basin through subsidence of land or contamination of the aquifer with salts, and it may never fully refill. And the draft environmental impact report says nothing at all about how the real risk of climate change might alter the desert hydrology.

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 idea 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.

Peter Gleick

Originally published by the Huffington Post on January 24, 2012.

1 reply
  1. Bill Whigham says:

    Reminds me of all the streams running through the breaks in the pan handle of Oklahoma and Texas. I talked to some old-timers there, and they told me the streams flowed water all year before the extensive irrigation from ground water to grow feed-lot grains.

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