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Mojave Desert Aquifer Plan Comes Under New Scrutiny

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and two Republican congressmen have raised concerns about a proposal to pump large amounts of water from an extensive Mojave Desert aquifer, while environmental groups are calling on California Gov. Gray Davis to oppose the project.

The ambitious 50-year plan, proposed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and a politically connected Santa Monica company, involves storing surplus Colorado River water and extracting naturally occurring underground water supplies.

In a recent letter, Feinstein and Reps. Jerry Lewis of Redlands and Ken Calvert of Riverside asked a number of pointed questions of the federal Department of Interior, which will ultimately have to sign off on the project.

“While we strongly support the concept of storing excess water in the desert,” they wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, “we are particularly concerned about the potential effects of pumping water from the aquifer and the possible depletion of water for desert wildlife.”

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The proposal, now in the final stages of environmental review, calls for Cadiz Inc. to sell water pumped from beneath 27,000 acres of land the firm owns in the eastern California desert to the MWD.

The MWD, which serves 17 million Southern Californians, would also pay Cadiz to store surplus water drawn from the Colorado, banking it in the aquifer for dry periods.

The project has been scrutinized because of both its potential environmental impacts and because Cadiz is headed by Keith Brackpool, a well-connected donor and advisor to Davis.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have argued that proponents of the project overstated the amount of water that can be safely pumped from the aquifer.

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On Monday, a dozen environmental groups sent Davis a letter asking him to oppose the project.

“We encourage you to support projects that are economically and environmentally sound. The Cadiz project fails on both counts,” wrote the groups, which include the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Assn. and the Western Environmental Law Center.

On Tuesday, the law center also released a report by a hydrologist critical of proposed monitoring of the pumping project. John Bredehoeft, who oversaw water research programs during his more than three decades with the geological survey, contends that the monitoring will belatedly detect serious ground water problems.

He further says that the rate of aquifer recharge is much slower than estimated in draft environmental documents and that the water table can sustain pumping at only a fraction of the proposed level.

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In a second report released Tuesday, the nonprofit Pacific Institute questions the economics of the pumping and storage project, asserting it will cost the water district much more than projected.

Adan Ortega, MWD’s vice president of external affairs, said the issues are all being addressed in final environmental impact reports scheduled for release later this month.

“Those questions have already been asked. Answers are being incorporated by the federal agency and metropolitan [water district] in the final EIS/EIR,” Ortega said. “Those answers must satisfy both authorities for the project to proceed.”

The proposal must be approved by the MWD board and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which controls much of the land surrounding the isolated Cadiz property.

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Tony Staed, spokesman for the BLM’s California office, said the Interior Department is preparing a response to the letter sent by Feinstein, Lewis and Calvert.

Jim Specht, communications director for Lewis, said the congressman is worried that the Cadiz project could dry up scores of residential water wells scattered through the region. Lewis is also concerned that the water district will become overly dependent on the Cadiz supplies, Specht said.

“We’ve seen what has been presented and still have grave reservations about whether this is a good idea--either for the desert area or the ratepayers of MWD,” Specht said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Pumping Proposal

Cadiz Inc. of Santa Monica is proposing a controversial project to pump large quanties of ground water from a Mojave Desert aquifer and sell it to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Cadiz also wants to use the aquifer to store water drawn from the Colorado river.


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