By Scott Slater
Published in the San Bernardino Sun
October 8, 2012
From the time before statehood, water has been recognized as the lifeblood of California’s economy. A little more than 80 years ago, the people of this state adopted a constitutional amendment mandating the optimization of efficient water use in California. Since that time, water has remained a critical resource and Article 10, Section 2 of the California Constitution has served to provide the legal and policy underpinnings for responsible water use.
Water rights are private property. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has declared them among the most valuable of all property rights. Yet, even these property rights are not untouchable. Private and public owners of water rights share a duty to use water responsibly. That is, the right to water may be enjoyed only so long as water rights are used consistent with the corresponding duty to use the water wisely and with respect for others and the environment.
Cadiz Inc. is a private landowner that owns 34,000 acres (50 square miles) of private property in the Cadiz and Fenner valleys in eastern San Bernardino County that overlies significant groundwater resources. Currently, millions of acre-feet of clean, renewable groundwater move slowly downward beneath the Cadiz Valley property to a salt flat where it is lost to evaporation.
The Cadiz Valley Water Project promises to conserve 1.6 million acre-feet of water by intercepting it before it can become hyper-saline (undrinkable) and then evaporate. The project will not take water from any existing user or harm the environment.
This promise is supported by three years of physical investigations, field mapping, land surveys, modeling and the drilling of a dozen wells and pump tests conducted by the nation’s largest water-well driller and Inland Empire company, Layne Christensen, which has described the aquifer system underlying the Project as prolific. A 7,000-page environmental impact report certified by the Santa Margarita Water District in July also found no significant environmental impacts attributable to the project operations.
These hydrologic evaluations and environmental documents were peer-reviewed by an independent group of groundwater professionals (Groundwater Stewardship Committee) that included Chip Groat, the former head of the U.S. Geological Survey, Professor Robert Wilkinson from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Gregory Thomas from the Natural Heritage Institute, and Andrew Stone of the American Ground Water Trust, among others. These individuals were not paid for their services, and spent months conducting their thorough review. They concluded that the project was feasible and that it could be implemented without harm to the environment.
By contrast, critics of the project retained paid consultants that have relied upon decade-old and largely discredited studies to argue that the project uses flawed recharge estimates and should be delayed or subject to additional analysis. On Oct. 1, the County of San Bernardino put this debate to rest.
Retaining its own independent expert groundwater specialists to peer review the project, the county weighed in by requiring stringent monitoring and conditions for the project that will provide yet further restrictions on project operations to avoid harm. The Groundwater Management, Monitoring and Mitigation Plan (GMMMP) adopted by the county Oct. 1 imposes limits to groundwater withdrawals to a measurable floor (cap) on subsurface groundwater levels, in effect, making the debate over recharge moot. If there is less recharge than predicted, then the water table may fall to the established floor, but not beyond it.
The county also reserved complete and total enforcement power to further condition the project over time, or to simply shut it down if necessary. In addition, the county negotiated for long-term rights to 20 percent of the project yield for county-based water agencies, as well as a one-time supply of 25,000 acre-feet.
The county’s action smartly and efficiently establishes it as the independent enforcement entity to ensure groundwater withdrawals do not cause impacts within the watershed. Despite the critics’ failure to acknowledge the historical, geologic and hydrogeologic inaccuracies in comparing Fenner Valley to the Owens Valley, there is now one irrefutable legal difference. That is, Owens and Mono counties fought for 80 years to obtain the regulatory authority and control over diversions from the region that San Bernardino County obtained through its actions Oct. 1.
The Cadiz Project demonstrates the very best in public-private stewardship. Private enterprise has invested to bring forward a proposal that will save enormous quantities of water from waste. Public agencies have evaluated the merits and the county’s action now adds local control to independently ensure that the project’s promise of stewardship – the conservation of 1.6 million acre-feet of groundwater without harm to others and the environment – will be fulfilled.
After 25 years in business in the county, Cadiz has pledged that on the way to project completion, the vast majority of the $225 million capital budget will be spent on local vendors so that economic benefits are realized here where they are sorely needed. Local economist John Husing has estimated the project’s overall economic impact to be over $800 million.
Scott Slater is Cadiz Inc.’s president and general counsel and is also a member of the Board of Directors.