Water from the Sands
There’s no thirstier state than California. Its history of water wars, droughts—both natural and manmade—and, according to some, outright theft of water from the Owens Valley about four hours north of Los Angeles, has inspired legend, myth, and movies. But even after roughly a century of water flowing into an otherwise arid region, conditions are so desperate today that some Southern California cities are looking to the driest desert in North America as a water source.
The idea is not as odd as it might sound. More than 800 billion gallons of water, which would serve roughly 400,000 customers, are available for capture in the California desert. Logistically, the proposal is both feasible and fiscally attractive, but anti-development environmental activists have sued to shut down the project. The plan, which goes back about 10 years, is to catch Mojave groundwater before it flows into an aquifer beneath the desert floor in San Bernardino County. Cadiz Incorporated, a water-resource developer, would then use a 43-mile pipeline to pump that water into the Colorado River Aqueduct. The pipeline will follow an existing railroad right-of-way, obviating the need for new development—always an obstacle to such efforts, with opposition from environmental groups. Once the water reaches the aqueduct, a primary provider of Southern California drinking water, it could then be sold to local water districts. Both the Trump administration—which lifted an Obama-era regulatory hurdle—and California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal have given the project their blessing, so it seems likely to proceed.
But activists are working diligently to derail the plan. Ileene Anderson from the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the litigants, argues that the project “will suck the desert dry.” The desert actually sucks itself dry. When left alone, the water that Cadiz proposes to capture flows into a salt lake, where it either evaporates or is tainted by the salt, making it unpotable and poisonous to plants. Hydrating Southern California with this water is hardly the same as stealing it; the water would simply be used, rather than lost.
Anderson further claims that the project is nothing but an “unsustainable water-privatization scheme,” but the difference between a “scheme” and a means to meet consumer demand for water is ideological, not scientific. From a practical standpoint, water markets make sense: market signals determine prices, and buyers and sellers, not bureaucrats pressured by environmentalist groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, decide where water flows and from what source.
Opposition to development is never complete without an appeal to health and safety. In this case, opponents are citing the presence of chromium 6, an element that can be carcinogenic if inhaled in high concentrations, though its toxicity when found in drinking water remains open to scientific debate. The threat of chromium 6, which occurs naturally in much of California’s groundwater, is likely overstated. The California Department of Public Health says that up to 10 parts per billion is safe, while the federal standard is 10 times as high, at 100 parts per billion. Reports say that a portion of the water that Cadiz plans to pump has been found to hold 16 parts per billion of the element, but it’s unlikely that consumers will get water with a concentration that high, since it will be mixed with water containing no detectable chromium 6. And the project includes a treatment system that reduces chromium 6 to levels so low that it becomes undetectable in the water supply.
No matter. Senator Dianne Feinstein and California assembly member Laura Friedman, both Democrats, complained in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that the project would be “an environmental disaster” that “could destroy the Mojave Desert.” Once again, opponents lack perspective; the footprint of the Cadiz project would be only about 50 square miles, roughly one-one thousandth of the entire Mojave, which covers about 50,000 square miles. It would take hundreds of similarly sized projects to affect the desert in the way that opponents suggest.
The activists ignore another salient fact: San Bernardino County has the authority either to reduce or entirely halt pumping if it believes that the project is causing harm to the desert. One has to wonder why the California legislature, with its Democratic majorities in both chambers, hasn’t shut down the project if it is as environmentally dangerous as opponents claim. An attempt to throw sand in the plan’s gears didn’t even get enough support in the state senate to reach a vote. Maybe that’s because it’s a useful project that the Mojave can easily absorb—like a drop of water on a scorching desert day.