• Steve Brown

New study finds serious flaws in Cadiz environmental review

A new study published in the journal, Hydrology, undermines the assertions Cadiz Inc. has been making about the Cadiz water project's impact on the aquifer wildlife relies on in the eastern Mojave Desert.

Cadiz wants to pump 50,000 acre-feet of water annually to sell to Orange County. The company's generous estimate of recharge to the aquifer claims it would be recharged through rainfall by 32,000 acre feet per year (though that does appear to leave the aquifer in overdraft). However, this new study places a more accurate recharge rate for the aquifer would be somewhere between 4,000 and 12,000 acre-feet per year, far below the Cadiz estimate.

Other studies indicate that this aquifer is tied to major springs in the Mojave that wildlife rely upon for survival. Any substantial drop in the water table would increase the likelihood of wildlife die-offs across a vast area of the eastern Mojave, including portions of the Mojave Trails National Monument. When wildlife connectivity is considered, die-offs would also likely impact the Mojave National Preserve and a host of wilderness areas and public lands, and could present serious problems for species such as the threatened desert tortoise.

The new peer reviewed study uses radiocarbon dating of spring flows and finds, "The groundwater age and perennial flow characteristics of springs in this study could not be derived from waters sourced solely from local recharge. Therefore, the springs in this study require a significant groundwater contribution to their overall discharge. A previously described conceptual site model in the region established that Bonanza Spring is similarly hydrologically connected to the regional basin-fill aquifer, based on geologic and geochemical/isotopic analyses, and this conceptual site model for where perennial spring water is sourced should readily be extended to these other perennial springs in this region."

Location of the springs investigated within the Mojave Trails National Monument. Also shown are the location of the closest weather stations where local precipitation has been recorded.
Location of the springs investigated within the Mojave Trails National Monument. Also shown are the location of the closest weather stations where local precipitation has been recorded. Image from the study. Click on link for more information.

The study's authors found that in addition to Bonanza Spring, which another study found to be dependent upon the aquifer for recharge, at least four other springs rely upon the aquifer for recharge: Vernandyles, Theresa, Burnt, and Hummingbird. Cadiz has claimed its proposed water project would not impact the springs of this part of the Mojave as they were not fed by groundwater. This has now been proven to be false.

“While there are springs observed in this region that are seasonal and that appear to source from local precipitation-driven recharge, the perennial flow and older radiocarbon characteristics of Bonanza Spring, Hummingbird Spring, Burnt Spring, Vernandyles Spring, and Theresa Springs indicate that they are not exclusively sourced from local recharge," the study found. "Thus, these spring flows, and the ecological community that depends on such flows, are inseparably connected to the regional groundwater and any groundwater management decisions that can impact on this resource.”

Study authors Adam Love and Andy Zdon analyzed all five previous recharge estimates from 1999 to present, rainfall records, estimation methods, and data published since the Cadiz Inc. Environmental Impact Report was finalized. They concluded that the huge variation in estimates showed Cadiz was relying on "substantial generalizations." They also found contributing factors, such as changes in wet and dry periods, strongly indicated a need to look at long-term average annual precipitation trends.

"These large uncertainties in the derived recharge values hinder the ability to appropriately assess and manage the water resources in the region," wrote Love and Zdon. The study's authors called for a “more reliable test of the recharge estimate” in light of their research findings.

“This new scientific study highlights the need for further review of the environmental science underpinning the Cadiz Inc. groundwater pumping project," noted Joshua Friedes, Executive Director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, which funded the study. "Desert springs and the level of the aquifer are vital to desert biodiversity, and this new research shows the threats to one of the most intact ecosystems in the US.”

Key findings from the new study include:

  • The Cadiz EIR inappropriately used “higher than average” precipitation data, inflating the groundwater recharge estimate and skewing the analysis. Newly published records incorporated into the study show alternating 40 year dry-wet rain cycles and precipitation data used by Cadiz was only from “wet” years.

  • The Cadiz EIR inappropriately used precipitation data from Mitchell Cavern Station, which receives a disproportionate amount of rainfall, skewing the groundwater recharge analysis.

  • The Cadiz EIR incorrectly stated that surface water springs are not hydraulically connected to the aquifer Cadiz Inc. would mine. Radiocarbon dating from five springs in Mojave Trails National Monument show the water is thousands of years old (ranging between 1,800–15,500  years old), demonstrating they are fed by the ancient groundwater aquifer.

  • The Cadiz EIR did not even identify two of the springs in the study, meaning the impacts to them were not analyzed or disclosed. Importantly, the study concludes these two springs are fed by ancient groundwater that Cadiz would mine.

  • These year-round flowing springs fed by ancient groundwater have added importance to the ecosystem considering a hotter, drier, changing climate will lead to the decimation of other springs that are fed by seasonal precipitation.

  • Water resource management agencies need to use a recharge estimate within 4,000-12,000 acre-feet per year (AFY) to protect resources, consistent with the U.S. Geological Survey's recharge estimate of 2,000-10,000 AFY and far less than Cadiz’s plans to extract 50,000 AFY.

  • With the study demonstrating that springs are being fed by ancient groundwater, this means even a one foot drop in the water table can dry up springs and vegetation. The Cadiz EIR allows for the water table to drop 80 feet.

  • The only way to get to a reliable recharge figure is through groundwater modeling and calibrating for recharge rather than precipitation.  

Read the study HERE.

"Of the five springs this study conclusively links to the aquifer Cadiz would mine, two aren't even mentioned in the project's slipshod Environmental Impact Report," noted Chris Clarke, California Desert Program Manager. "And yet Cadiz continues to rely on its obsolete scientific claims to advance this destructive project. This should be a serious wake-up call to California State Senate leadership, who just killed legislation that would have ensured science, not Cadiz’s friends in the Trump administration, drives decisions about California’s parks, wildlife, and water."

Clarke was referring to the recent sabotage of SB 120 which had passed the California State Assembly and reportedly had the votes to pass in the Senate, but was locked in committee by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins. SB 120 would have provided for stronger environmental safeguards for projects like the Cadiz water project. Atkins has received campaign contributions from Cadiz Inc., a Cadiz employee, and employees of the law firm that owns shares of Cadiz. Cadiz previously supported former Senate President Kevin De León's campaign for lieutenant governor (he is now campaigning for Senator Dianne Feinstein's senate seat). De Leon opposed a previous incarnation of legislation (AB 1000) that was substantially the same as SB 120.

Read The Desert Sun's story HERE.

A story in Capitol Weekly by Cody Petterson of the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, reported that Cadiz has a history of well timed connections with California politicians that dates back to Governor Gray Davis receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and the use of Cadiz jets. The Capitol Weekly story also notes the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors were also induced to "cede their lead-agency status for the California Environmental Quality Act to the distant, tiny Santa Margarita Water District, which would be the main purchaser of the water" with the help of more than $100,000 in "well-timed campaign contributions."

Not only did Davis receive $230,000 in campaign contributions, Capitol Weekly noted, but Antonio Villaraigosa also received campaign contributions, and Susan Kennedy, the soon-to-be chief of staff to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, reportedly obtained $120,000 in consulting fees.

After Atkins became Senate President Pro Tem, Cadiz hired her former chief of staff, Greg Campbell, Petterson noted. Cadiz also hired a lobbying firm led by Justin Fanslau, Atkin's former legislative director, and while AB 1000 was under consideration previously, it hired Mercury Public Affairs, with former California State Assembly Speaker Fabián Nuñez, a friend and mentor to then-Senate leader Kevin de León, as one of the firm's partners, according to The Desert Sun.

Read the Capitol Weekly story HERE.

Read the Desert Sun story HERE.

Senator Feinstein, a longtime desert supporter and defender, has weighed in on this most recent study, noting that it confirms Cadiz is selling a false bill of goods.

“This study highlights the serious flaws in Cadiz’s own environmental review," Feinstein noted. "By inflating rainfall numbers, cherry-picking data and ignoring scientific facts, Cadiz has tried to sell the public a false bill of goods with its bogus environmental review.

“There is no question that Cadiz would irreparably harm the Mojave Desert," the senator continued. "Numerous independent scientific studies have said just that. This is just the latest study to validate our concerns about Cadiz’s proposal.

“In fact, this study confirms a previous independent scientific analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service that found the natural recharge rate is only 2,000 to 10,000 acre-feet per year, well below the 50,000 acre-feet that Cadiz wants to withdraw each year," Feinstein explained.

“Water is the lifeblood of the desert, sustaining beautiful wildflower blooms, iconic Joshua trees, and protected species like the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep," she concluded. "By draining important aquifers that feed desert springs, including the nearby Bonanza Spring, Cadiz would irreparably damage everything that makes the Mojave Desert special. No amount of private profit is worth losing this treasured place.”

More information from the Mojave Desert Land Trust: HERE.

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