JOSHUA TREE — There is not much middle ground over a proposal to extract millions of acre feet of underground water from the desert about 40 miles northeast of Twentynine Palms for sale to Orange County residents.
More than 50 people gathered at Copper Mountain College for a public hearing Wednesday evening on the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project.
There were 21 speakers at the college from throughout the eastern Mojave Desert who let their opinions be known to the Santa Margarita Water District Board of Directors in Mission Viejo via teleconference.
Annother 25 to 30 people from the Morongo Basin traveled to Mission Viejo to speak.
The meeting agenda stated the board would consider certifying an environmental impact report detailing the potential effects of the water project. But after more than six hours of public testimony, the board elected to continue its review of the proposal and scheduled a follow-up special board meeting for July 31.
If the Environmental Impact Report had been approved by the board Wednesday, the board would next have considered approving a proposal to extract up to 50,000 acre feet of water per year for 50 years.
The plan is to construct a 43-mile pipeline along an existing railway to convey the water to the Colorado River Aqueduct and deliver it to coastal cities.
A staff report stated the cost of the project is in the $212 to $220 million range.
Garry Thompson, a Santa Margarita Water District board member and former mayor of the city, stated in a public SMWD committee meeting on the Cadiz project, “You’ve all been out there. There’s nothing out there in that desert anyway.”
San Bernardino County will have oversight of the project. Third District Supervisor Neil Derry voted against the memorandum of understanding with Santa Margarita and has stated his opposition to the project.
“This is the reason why we needed to keep this local,” Derry said. “Sending it out to Santa Margarita was a huge mistake on the county’s part. We should be governing ourselves, not letting Orange County snobbery lead the way.”
CEO says project isremarkable, innovative
Phillip Smith, a Chemehuevi Indian from Needles, told directors he was disgusted with the project during public comments Wednesday. Another speaker who identified himself as an old desert rat expressed concern about aquifer drawdown because, he said, his well is located 30 miles from the project site.
Detractors pointed out the occurrence of hexavalent chromium, a naturally occurring carcinogen, in the Cadiz water. Water purveyors said they plan to blend the Cadiz water with Colorado River water in the concrete-lined canal and tunnels that run along the southern border of Joshua Tree National Park.
A second phase of the project proposes to replenish the extracted water during wet years with Colorado River water.
Scott Slater, Cadiz chief executive officer, said the “remarkable, innovative, creative” project will conserve 1.6 million acre-feet of water that would otherwise go to waste through evaporation.
“If we don’t intervene,” Slater testified, “the water will be lost.”
Slater said the company learned from a previous failed effort from 1999 to 2001 and this time has put an emphasis on conservation, including moving the proposed pipeline to previously disturbed land along the railroad.
The CEO stated the pipeline would provide the added benefit of fire suppression to dozens of wooden railway trestles.
A representative from Layne Christensen, the company that drilled test wells for the environmental report, said tests concluded there would be no water drawdown.
Others at CMC speaking in favor of the project included Twentynine Palms resident John Cole, who is also the current mayor but stated his comments were his own, not necessarily the city’s. Cole said he supports the plan if done with proper oversight.
Bill Garvin, another longtime Twentynine Palms resident and former water district director, added his support. Ramon Mendoza of Yucca Valley said the project could save California.
Park advocates among opponents
“People here are passionate about water,” Seth Shteir, a field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, said Friday from his office in Joshua Tree. “They want to see their water protected. People are concerned about and are critical of the project.”
“There’s a small movement in Joshua Tree toward sustainability,” Shteir continued. “(The Cadiz project) moves in the opposite direction. It doesn’t save a drop for future generations.”
Shteir was quick to point out NPCA is joined by the Morongo Basin Conservation Association, Transition Joshua Tree and other groups in expressing their concerns about the project.
“This is based on bad science,” Stacy Doolittle, Transition Joshua founding member, said by phone Friday.