The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A massive aquifer lies beneath the Mojave Desert. Could it help solve California’s water problem?

The sun sets on the Mojave National Preserve in Kelso, Calif., in early February. There is water under the desert, and whether to tap it on a commercial scale is a crucial debate in California. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)

CADIZ VALLEY, Calif. — The landscape here is more Martian than Earthly, rust and tan plains that rise in the distance to form the Old Woman Mountains to the east and the Bristols and Marbles to the north and west.

Almost everything here is protected by the federal government. The opportunity or threat, depending on your point of view, lies beneath the dusty surface that, after a recent rain, blooms with sprays of yellow desert dandelion.

There is water here in the Mojave Desert. A lot of it.

Whether to tap it on a commercial scale or leave it alone is a decades-old question the Trump administration has revived and the California legislature is visiting anew. The debate will help resolve whether private enterprise can effectively manage a public necessity in a state where who gets water and where it originates endures as the most volatile political issue.

It also is among several critical decisions on water policy facing the new Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, who in his first State of the State address in February highlighted what he called California’s “massive water challenges.” He already has scaled back one major water project — turning a proposed twin-tunnel pipeline to run beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta into a single tunnel — and will soon consider changes in river-water allocations for urban and agricultural users.

“Our water supply is becoming less reliable because of climate change, and our population is growing because of a strong economy,” Newsom said. “That means a lot of demand on an unpredictable supply.”

Newsom said this state of 40 million people, many living in near-desert climates, must “get past the old binaries like farmers versus environmentalists or North versus South.”

“Our approach can’t be either/or,” he said. “It must be yes/and.”

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His message will be tested here with a long-standing proposal to draw water from the desert — a new source that would add billions of gallons a year to the state’s overall supply but also potentially prompt new development and demand.

The fraught legacy of the state’s water wars goes back to 1913, when the Owens River was diverted to drive the growth of Los Angeles — killing Owens Lake and the agricultural economy of the Owens Valley — and it haunts the project to this day.

“This is an extremely difficult space in which to do business in this state,” said Scott Slater, chief executive of Cadiz, a publicly traded water company with a huge interest in the Mojave. “These legacies shadow everything we do, and so we have to make sure what we are doing is right.”

Cadiz has been seeking since 1997 to tap into the Fenner Basin, an aquifer that sits beneath a portion of the 35,000 acres of private property that the company owns within the boundaries of the Mojave Trails National Monument. President Barack Obama created the preserve in his final year in office.

The aquifer is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Cadiz would draw water from the ground, pump it east through a proposed 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct, then sell it to water districts as far as 200 miles away. An estimated 100,000 households could be customers during the project’s initial 50-year term, which would generate billions of dollars in revenue for the company.

High hurdles remain, including a new legislative effort to slow the project and sort out the science behind it.

The company still needs a permit to join the aqueduct, operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest wholesale supplier in the United States. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also recently challenged Cadiz’s environmental assessment of the project, though the company does not think it needs the agency’s permission to move ahead — except for its plans to alter streambeds along the pipeline’s proposed route, which runs mostly within a railroad right of way.

But if Cadiz can clear those obstacles, the project could be up and running within a year.

“This will not provide enough water to be the solution to the state’s water problems,” Slater said. “But it is certainly part of the solution.”

The opposition has argued that the Cadiz plan would threaten fragile desert springs and deplete the groundwater far faster than seasonal rain and snow can replenish it, threatening flora and rare wildlife. Opponents also are newly concerned about how the environmental review process has played out.

“What’s at stake here now is the state of California’s ability to hold off against the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks,” said David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert program for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “They have tried unsuccessfully for years to take this water and move it to market. Now the threat has taken a new shape given how advantageously Cadiz has been treated by the Trump administration.”

Soon after the 2016 election, the Trump transition team included Cadiz as No. 15 on its priority list of “emergency and national security” projects, drawing sharp protest from critics including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Less than a year later, the administration exempted the project from a federal review that the Obama administration required because of the federal land involved in the pipeline construction.

The current acting Interior Department secretary, David Bernhardt, then the department’s second in charge, had worked with Cadiz as a partner in the law firm handling the company’s legal and lobbying efforts before entering the administration. Bernhardt served on Trump’s transition team, but he had formally recused himself from issues involving Cadiz when the administration waived the federal review.

The project has emerged as a cause celebre. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has urged state lawmakers to block it. So has the musician and record producer Moby and the pop star Sia, who has enlisted her nearly 4 million Twitter followers in the cause.

Newsom has yet to weigh in on the issue as governor. But his aides pointed to the comments he made during last year’s campaign, when he stated his opposition to the project and criticized Cadiz. The company had donated to the election effort of one of his Democratic primary opponents, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who worked for Cadiz for a year after leaving that office.

“I don’t like people buying influence,” Newsom said then. “I don’t like money determining the fate of even good ideas, let alone bad ideas. I don’t like the way this whole thing has played out.”

A question of science

Water has bubbled in caverns under this desert for thousands of years.

From the New York and Providence mountain ranges, rain and snowmelt wend down through porous ground, skirting less permeable volcanic rock on its way. Here on the flats, marked in places by old salt mines operating in dry lake beds, the earth-warmed water fills underground caves.

That is where Cadiz intends to capture — and eventually store — the water in what Slater calls a “picket fence” of more than a dozen wells. On a chilly wind-swept morning, water frothed to the surface on company land, filling a basin the size of a few tennis courts in a hint of the bounty beneath.

That — plus a few wells — is about all that exists of the project so far.

Some of the water is being used to irrigate Cadiz-owned citrus orchards — vast green groves of lemons, including a variety that is pink inside and sells for a premium in Japan. Slater grabbed a few to take home to his children.

“We are going to use this water,” he said. “It is the signature feature of the property.”

The hydrology of the Mojave is at the center of the debate, specifically within this system of faults and springs, ranges and valleys split by historic Route 66, its faded roadside attractions still visible as it passes from Amboy to Chambless and into the Piute Mountains Wilderness.

The two main questions: How quickly will the aquifer recharge with water if drawn down? And is the aquifer connected to other sources of groundwater, namely a spring that serves as an important watering ground for wandering bighorn sheep, the threatened desert tortoise and migratory birds?

Cadiz hopes to pump 16.3 billion gallons of water from the desert each year, equivalent to 50,000 acre-feet. A required environmental assessment, paid for by the company, found that 32,000 acre-feet of water would naturally recharge the aquifer each year, an 18,000-acre-foot annual deficit that Cadiz acknowledges would last for the project’s 50-year life. The assessment has withstood a number of court challenges.

But a peer-reviewed study published last fall in the journal Hydrology predicted that the aquifer would refill at only one-third the annual rate that the company has estimated. It echoed the findings of a U.S. Geological Survey study conducted almost two decades earlier.

“A lot of this is tied up in the perception that the desert is just a wasteland,” said Jessica Dacey, communications director for the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group. “In fact, it is a very fragile ecosystem.”

“This is not simply about the best research you can buy,” Dacey said. “That is not how this works.”

The Cadiz-funded assessment was accepted by the Santa Margarita Water District and San Bernardino County, both potential future customers. The water district, which serves 56,000 homes in Orange County, has signed on to buy 5,000 acre-feet of Cadiz water each year at a cost of about $5.8 million.

“What we’ve seen over the last 10 years is that the climate is changing and so, too, is the water,” said Daniel Ferons, general manager of the Santa Margarita Water District, which lies 200 miles south of here.

Ferons said the district’s local water supply is too high in salt, and, like investors, California water districts are increasingly looking to diversify their sources, for safety reasons.

Most of the district’s water is imported at a time when the threat of earthquakes to the aqueducts and pipes that constitute California’s elaborate water circulatory system is a major concern to state officials responsible for the supply.

“We believe the water from Cadiz is reliable and environmentally safe,” Ferons said. “It would be part of a portfolio approach.”

With both sides claiming science on their side, the California legislature has stepped in.

State Sen. Richard Roth, a Democrat from neighboring Riverside County, introduced legislation in February that, in his words, would “push the pause button to reconcile the science that has been submitted for and against the project.” A similar measure failed last year, largely for procedural reasons.

“I’m not trying to prevent the pumping of water from this aquifer,” Roth said. “But we must make sure that it is done in an environmentally sustainable way and in a way that is sustainable for the 400,000 people it is expected to serve once the first 50 years of the project end.”

A spring in the evening

In the twilight, the thin crescent of green sweeping down from the foothills of the Clipper Mountains stands in stark contrast to the sere glowing landscape around it. This half-mile stretch of mesquite, cottonwoods, cattails and mossy, shallow water is Bonanza Spring, the largest in the Mojave.

“What this spring is is a miracle,” said Sean Milanovich, 49, a member of the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla tribe, which makes its home in the Old Woman Mountains southeast of the spring. “Water is life to people here, and this spring connects us not only to nature but to the Earth itself.”

The tribe and its environmentalist allies worry that Cadiz will be drawing water from an aquifer shared by Bonanza Spring, which is about 10 miles north of the project site and a quarter-mile higher in elevation. The company insists there is no connection between the two water sources, arguing in part that the impermeable rock in the Fenner Gap separates the two systems.

But in a December letter to Cadiz, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife cited recent studies, dismissed by the company as paid for by environmentalists, that show the same chemical signatures in the spring water and in water drawn from the Fenner Basin.

The sun falls behind the hills, and, suddenly, the air turns sharply cold. The mountains are cutouts against the indigo sky, and there is nothing to be seen beyond the railroad tracks — a flat vastness, a place that has remained much the same for millennia but could be the next frontier in a dry state’s water supply.

“The way that we handle this case will be the story we tell the next generation about our public lands,” said Frazier Haney, the associate Southern California director for the nonprofit Conservation Lands Foundation. “And it will determine what becomes of our long tradition of stewardship of the desert.”