New Science In An Old Dispute – The Cadiz Inc Project Threatens a Major Mojave Spring

By Jessica Dacey   |   Within the Mojave Trails National Monument and just a few miles from historic Route 66, Bonanza Spring is a vibrant symbol of the desert’s intact ecosystem. Clustered among reeds and swarming with bees, the spring waters an extensive riparian area. It is the biggest wetland for 1,000 square miles, and it is central to a long-running dispute. Cadiz Inc proposes to extract 16.3 billion gallons of water every year from a deep aquifer underlying the Fenner Basin for export to suburban Orange County. Cadiz contends that the pumping will not affect nearby springs, saying that these are not connected to the deeper aquifer they plan to tap. New data offers a direct rebuttal to this claim.

Above: Bonanza Spring. Photo by Michael E. Gordon.

An Update in the September 2017 Desert Report (http://www.desertreport.org/?p=1959) reviewed the long and convoluted background for the project. There have been issues regarding the rate of ground water recharge, effects on wildlife, possible contamination of the water, and conveyance of the water from its source in the Mojave Desert to its ultimate destination. Political maneuvering and money have been part of the scenario as well. To this now comes a peer reviewed paper in the journal Environmental Forensics, which definitively identifies the water source for Bonanza Spring and the hazard that would be incurred by the Cadiz Inc proposal to pump desert groundwater.

Many springs in the Mojave Desert are local springs that are primarily fed by local precipitation. In contrast, regional springs are fed primarily by deeper groundwater and have identifying characteristics that include temperature, geochemical makeup, and other physical attributes.

 

The context of Bonanza Spring. Map by Mojave Desert Land Trust.

The context of Bonanza Spring. Map by Mojave Desert Land Trust.

 

The recent, multiple-methodology study reported in Environmental Forensics was originally conducted for the Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) by Andy Zdon of Partner Engineering and Science Inc and was subsequently updated for publication. Published geologic maps, measured groundwater levels, water quality chemistry, and isotope data from several sources were employed. It concluded that other nearby springs (Hummingbird, Chuckwalla, and Teresa Springs) were sourced locally, but that Bonanza Spring was different.

“Water within Bonanza Spring is from a basin-fill water source, deriving its water from recharge north of the Clipper Mountains, and could be impacted if groundwater levels decrease at, or near, the spring” states the study, titled ‘Understanding the source of water for selected springs within Mojave Trails National Monument, California.’

Frazier Haney, Director of Land Conservation, MDLT: “This peer-reviewed report draws a line under the various arguments about the environmental impact of this project. It clearly shows that Bonanza Spring is fed by the same groundwater that the Cadiz Inc project proposes to extract from the area. This confirms a threat to one of the most intact ecosystems in the US.”

In the desert, the depletion of any water source can be fatal for plant and wildlife. Bonanza Spring is a green, half-mile oasis lined with cottonwoods, reeds and mesquite. It is an important stopover for bighorn sheep, migrating birds, and insects. Biodiversity was one of the main factors contributing to the designation of the Mojave Trails National Monument in 2016. Cadiz Inc’s 34,000-acre property sits at the heart of the monument.

Geologists recently hired by Cadiz Inc concluded that Bonanza Spring was NOT hydraulically connected to the aquifer, based on an assumption that fractured rock separated the aquifer from the spring. These findings are not supported by this new groundwater analysis. The new data confirms the spring’s hydraulic connection to the aquifer. Additionally, data from the project’s 2012 Environmental Impact Report indicates that Cadiz Inc’s groundwater pumping would create a “cone of depression” in the aquifer extending far beyond the described fault line, reducing groundwater levels north of the Clipper Mountains where groundwater flows feed Bonanza Spring.

Partner Engineering and Science Inc’s study is supported by data gathered by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which provides further evidence that Bonanza Spring is connected to the aquifer. This data was made available in 2000 as part of the Cadiz Inc project and made public in August 2017.

 

Subsurface Groundwater in the Fenner Basin. Illustration by MDLT.

Subsurface Groundwater in the Fenner Basin. Illustration by MDLT.

 

Frazier Haney, Director of Land Conservation, MDLT: “Not only would the Cadiz Inc project cause irreparable damage to the environment and remove the only wetland of its kind within the southeastern Mojave, it would also be a blow to the local community in the Cadiz Valley.”

Local landowners and businesses have expressed concern about the environmental impact of the proposed Cadiz Inc project. Simultaneous with the publication of this new research statements of opposition were issued by three Indigenous groups.

Michael J Madrigal, President, Native American Land Conservancy (NALC): “For our organization and area tribes, the Cadiz Inc project is not about water conservation. Cadiz Inc’s aggressive pumping would remove an average of 50,000-acre feet per year over a 50-year period. The NALC expresses its full opposition to the Cadiz project and commits its full effort to protecting tribal culture and preserving sacred lands. We welcome the new scientific and peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Forensics as it highlights the true nature of the springs in the Cadiz area, and supports what our organization has known all along, that this project will cause irreversible harm. Today, just as they did hundreds of years ago, tribal people depend on the resources of the area – its wildlife, plants and water for their cultural survival.”

In 2015, the Nature Conservancy helped commission the first modern, comprehensive Mojave Desert spring survey, working with the Bureau of Land Management and the Transition Habitat Conservancy, to better understand the distribution, sources and wildlife importance of springs on public lands across California’s Mojave Desert.

Sophie Parker, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy: “These springs are so critically important to desert biodiversity – including a wide range of wildlife that is resilient but extraordinarily fragile – that a drop in water levels of even a foot can imperil entire water dependent ecosystems.”

 

Bonanza Spring. Photo by Michael E. Gordon.

Bonanza Spring. Photo by Michael E. Gordon.

 

The new science also supports concerns raised by the National Park Service and the United States Geological Survey. It definitively refutes critical aspects of the Environmental Impact Review (EIR) under which initial permit approval was given. The California Environmental Quality Act, the law that mandates environmental review, allows an EIR to be reopened if substantial new information on a project comes to light.

State agencies have the legal authority to require further environmental review of Cadiz Inc based on new information. We support Senator Dianne Feinstein’s subsequent call for Cadiz Inc’s EIR to be reopened.

Jessica Dacey is the Director of Communications at the Mojave Desert Land Trust. MDLT acquires and conserves land across the Mojave Desert, including national parks, wilderness corridors and areas of environmental concern. It is one of the local landowners in the Mojave Trails National Monument.