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Santa Margarita Water District defends, approves Cadiz plans for Mojave groundwater pumping

The Cadiz Valley water project would pump groundwater from an aquifer in the Mojave Desert.
The Cadiz Valley water project would pump groundwater from an aquifer in the Mojave Desert.
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

A small Orange County water authority has approved plans to purchase water from the Cadiz company, under a divisive plan that would harvest water from aquifers in the Mojave Desert. 

The board of the Santa Margarita Water District voted 5 to 0 to certify an environmental impact report for the project, commit the district to a purchase plan for the water supplies, and set new rules for monitoring groundwater impacts from the project. 

A private Los Angeles-based company plans to spent $225 million to capture water at the base of the Fenner Valley and Orange Blossom Wash watersheds. Cadiz, Inc., owns over 45,000 acres of land in this area, and with it plans to construct a well field on which to gather water and a pipeline that would connect the water to the Colorado River Aqueduct. 

Cadiz says its scientists have found that loose soil layers have trapped as much as 34 million acre-feet of water underground. That water came from rain and snow that fell on Clipper and Providence mountains in the area. 

Opponents to the project include people who live in Morongo Valley communities like Joshua Tree, as well as environmental activists allied with groups like Orange County Coastkeeper. They argue that water pumping will increase dust in the area, harm other water supplies nearby. They also point out that water targeted by Cadiz currently exceeds public health goals the state of California has set for chromium 6. Hexavalent chromium is known to cause cancer when it's inhaled. 

Environmental groups are lobbying for better conservation measures as a primary way to meet water demands. Orange County Coastkeeper's Pamela Crouch points out that half or more of water used in the region goes to landscaping needs. "We just don’t think it is the most cost effective nor sustainable option for our water supply. We really believe that step one is changing the behaviors of our local communities here," Crouch said, after last week's public meeting. 

Santa Margarita and the Cadiz company say southern California water districts serving a million customers from Ventura to Orange counties and the Inland Empire need more secure supplies. The company and the water district have promised that water pumped in this system will meet safe drinking water standards. 

“For decades, the District has relied on imported water to meet our customers’ needs, and that supply has become increasingly unreliable because of drought, regulatory restrictions and the prospect of an earthquake or other major disaster disrupting the state’s primary water delivery system,” said Bill Lawson, the president of the Santa Margarita Water District board, in a release. “It is our duty and fiduciary responsibility as a public agency to explore additional, supplemental supplies of water.” 

Boosters and critics of the project stretched out a public hearing on the Cadiz project into 7 hours last week. But consultants to the Santa Margarita Water District wrote in a memo offered to the board Tuesday that "none of the comments identify new or more significant impacts, substantially different mitigation measures, or substantially different feasible alternatives," and so the environmental impact report already completed did what it had to under the law.