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Water Grab in the Mojave

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

In California's parched Mojave Desert, the mining of a new kind of liquid gold-water-is about to become big business. For two years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has been in talks with Cadiz Incorporated, an agribusiness firm that owns part of the land above an aquifer in the Mojave. Cadiz stands to make $500 million on the deal, which includes storing excess water from the Colorado River in basins underlying its property as well as pumping from the aquifer, which contains 650 billion gallons of water. Negotiations were swimming right along, even though the U.S. Geological Survey found that Cadiz had considerably understated the environmental impact of the project. The Survey voiced concern that excessive pumping would cause "subsidence," meaning the partial or total collapse of the aquifer, so that water storage would be increasingly difficult.

Environmentalists were worried, too, since the aquifer lies under a third of Mojave National Preserve and pumping it would affect springs in the Trilobite, Clipper Mountain, Old Woman Mountains, and Cadiz Dunes wilderness areas. "Trilobite has the second-largest herd of bighorn sheep in the desert," says Elden Hughes, chair of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee. "The bighorns are dependent on those springs." So are a wide variety of desert plants, as well as the threatened desert tortoise. Hughes also notes that the aquifer runs beneath two dry lakes in the area, Cadiz and Bristol. Though water rarely surfaces there, it keeps the lake beds moist. "Think about what happened to Owens Lake when Los Angeles diverted its water," says Hughes, referring to the water controversy that inspired the classic film Chinatown. Today, Owens Lake dust is one of the nation's biggest sources of air pollution. Together, Cadiz and Bristol are seven times the size of Owens Lake.

Bad news about the project's potentially devastating impact on the Mojave's ecosystem did not derail negotiations-perhaps because of the political connections of Cadiz's president and CEO, Keith Brackpool. In 1998, Brackpool was appointed by California governor Gray Davis to co-chair the Agriculture and Water Transition Task Force-a group charged with developing water policy for the new governor's administration. Brackpool currently serves on the Governor's Commission on Building for the 21st Century and sits on the board of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.

Elden Hughes says two other aquifer projects under consideration could store unused Colorado River water and then pump it during drought years. "Between the two," says Hughes, "Southern California could meet its water needs without destroying the environment."

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