Letter From The Desert: Water is Life

Right now, in a small bowl-shaped canyon on the south face of the Clipper Mountains, water flows from a small opening in the friable rock at the head of the canyon. Nearby is a surprising grove of trees, cottonwood and black willow, cattail and sedge and a few stems of exotic Arundo. I would say the trees and other vegetation were downstream, but this time of year there is not much of a stream. In winter, when the trees have lost their leaves, the water will run all the way down past the road, the better part of a mile from the spring. But it is summer in the Mojave, and right now at 5:00 pm the weather station down the road at Amboy is reporting 108°F, and the cottonwoods and willows are covered with thirsty leaves, so the ten gallons a minute coming forth from the rock makes it barely a hundred yards before it retreats underground, trickling subterraneanly to water the trees farther along.

This is Bonanza Spring, the largest source of water in a thousand square miles of the Mojave Desert. It is also one of the most reliable sources of water: above ground or under it, its flow is essentially unchanging regardless of the season.

On Thursday a bill I was working to support, SB307, passed the California Assembly by a two-thirds majority, after passing the State Senate by a like margin. It will require the State Lands Commission to determine that no harm will come to this spring or the smaller ones nearby before the Cadiz water mining project is allowed to proceed. The State Lands Commission will consult with scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Those scientists have already voiced grave concerns about the project. Cadiz plans to pump 16 billion gallons of water from this driest part of the Mojave each year. That’s an amount of water more than 3,000 times Bonanza Springs’ annual flow, or the equivalent of a mid-sized supertanker full every two and a half days. It is unlikely that any scientist not in the employ of Cadiz would find that the plan poses no threat to Bonanza Spring, or to any of the other springs in the area that are connected to the Pleistocene aquifer Cadiz wants to mine for profit. We know of four others so far. I suspect that a thorough survey of springs in neighboring ranges would turn up more. There are a few dozen springs in the Old Woman Mountains, immediately east of Cadiz’s wells, that have not been examined for potential connection to the aquifer so far as I know.

Over its entire history the Cadiz project has justified itself with false claims, scientific and otherwise, that sound just reasonable enough to persuade that portion of the public which either knows nothing of the desert or science, or doesn’t care. The degree to which the history of the Cadiz company illuminates the essential moral bankruptcy of the dark corners of the environmental consulting industry merits a bit of writing all to itself.

For now, though, a bill is on its way to the Governor’s desk that would force Cadiz’s claims to be scrutinized not by a willing water agency customer, and not by pay-to-play scientific consultants, but by scientists who passed up more lucrative jobs in industry in order to work in public service to protect California’s environment.

I am proud that I played at least a small role in getting that bill passed, a partial fulfillment of a promise I made Bonanza Spring a couple Aprils ago.

This ain’t over: there are still arguments to be made, science to be learned, and corporate chicanery to counter. But for now, bighorn sheep still walk the slopes of the Clippers toward water their ancestors relied on a thousand generations ago. And once the Governor’s pen lands on SB 307, the state of California will have pledged to protect that ancient relationship.