Firm fights Mojave water pumping
The company that wants to pump large amounts of Mojave Desert groundwater and sell it for a profit to Southern California suburbs has run into opposition from an unexpected quarter: an international corporation that runs industrial salt operations next door to the proposed project.
Texas-based Tetra Technologies Inc., an oil and gas services enterprise, has come out swinging at Cadiz Inc.'s pumping plans, filing two lawsuits, mounting a public relations campaign and dismissing the water project’s environmental review as a sham designed to escape serious scrutiny.
“There are so many games that they’ve played to make this thing ‘work,’ ” said Robert Bower, a partner in the California law firm of Rutan & Tucker, which is representing Tetra.
The company’s combativeness has given a boost to conservationists and desert residents who are fighting the project, which would annually withdraw enough Mojave groundwater to supply 100,000 homes and sell it to urban Southern California at prices that could earn Cadiz $1 billion to $2 billion in revenue over 50 years.
The proposal, a long-held dream of British-born entrepreneur Keith Brackpool, has stirred concern that it would harm surrounding public lands and open California’s desert aquifers, a public resource, to unprecedented water exports by private interests.
In Tetra, opponents have a deep-pocketed ally, a corporation with operations on six continents that is the world’s largest producer of calcium chloride, a salt that is used in oil and gas production, water treatment, food processing and road maintenance -- and that has for a century been commercially extracted from the aquifer system Cadiz wants to tap.
Just south of Cadiz’s proposed well field and 200 miles east of Los Angeles are several dry lakes, beneath which lie shallow reserves of calcium chloride-rich brine replenished by the groundwater flow. The lakes are the end point of the basin’s subterranean drainage. When the groundwater collects there, it picks up salts from ancient lake bed sediments.
In 1998, Tetra bought a brine-mining operation on Bristol Dry Lake and a few years later purchased a similar one on nearby Cadiz Dry Lake. The operations are almost primitive in their simplicity. Brine is drawn from shallow depths and collected into solar evaporation ponds where it is reduced to a concentrated calcium chloride liquid that is pumped off, leaving sodium chloride, or common salt, which is also gathered and sold for industrial purposes.
The collision between Tetra and Cadiz lies in Cadiz’s plans to divert groundwater to its wells before it reaches the dry lakes. Cadiz officials have made the diversion a major selling point of their project, which they are pitching as a “water conservation program” that would capture water that would otherwise naturally evaporate from the lake beds and “be wasted.”
That is not the way Tetra sees it. “The groundwater migrating to the dry lakes has been used for decades ... for the production of brine and commercial chemicals and the groundwater that does evaporate is beneficial to local ecosystems...Evaporation comes back as precipitation,” Bower wrote in a recent letter to San Bernardino County supervisors.
Cadiz says that if necessary it would pay to drill deeper brine wells for Tetra and would consider buying out the salt operations. “I’ve done everything I can and I continue to reach out,” Cadiz general counsel and president Scott Slater said in an interview. “I’m puzzled as to why [Tetra’s legal fight] is proceeding.”
Tetra’s Superior Court lawsuits, filed against San Bernardino County and the Santa Margarita Water District, also name Cadiz as a party. The actions challenge the project’s review under state environmental law and an agreement Cadiz struck with the county that exempted the project from the county’s groundwater ordinance while setting certain conditions on the pumping. Tetra argues that the county should have taken the lead in reviewing the project instead of the Orange County Water District, which has signed an option to buy the largest share of Cadiz water.
“Why could they possibly be the lead agency on a project that’s going to extract San Bernardino [County] groundwater and send it to them as a customer?” Bower asked. “You think there may be a conflict of interest there?”
County spokesman David Wert called Tetra’s legal action “misguided and without merit.” The county has said previously that it retained authority over the pumping because Cadiz has agreed that its monitoring and management plan requires the final approval of the Board of Supervisors. But that accord has also been questioned by Tetra, which contends it effectively gives free rein to Cadiz.
Dan Ferons, the Santa Margarita Water District’s general manager, declined to comment on Tetra’s legal challenge. But his predecessor, John Schatz, has said it was appropriate for the district to assume the lead in the environmental review. “We think as a public agency in the water business we can adequately assess the environmental impacts.”
The district plans to release its final environmental impact report Friday and has scheduled a public hearing for July 25, when its board is expected to approve the project.
Tetra is not confining its fight to the courtroom. Working with other opponents, Bower’s law firm set up a nonprofit opposition group that sent mailers to Santa Margarita district customers warning that the Cadiz project would send their water rates soaring. Bower also hired a public relations company that created an opposition website.
Cadiz in turn hired a public relations firm that set up a pro-project website. And, in a shot at the Sacramento- based public relations firm Tetra retained, the South Orange County Regional Chamber of Commerce sent a mailer to Santa Margarita customers warning that “Sacramento operatives” were trying to dictate the county’s water future.
Not to be outdone, the Santa Margarita district sent a mailer of its own, denying that rates would skyrocket and saying that water otherwise lost to the “desert air” would be “collected and conserved.”