At its best, journalism is surely a joint enterprise. It's not a reporter that makes democracy workable, it's the press. Quotes from Thomas Jefferson come to mind. So it's very exciting to yours truly to see another reporter pick up and run with a crucial detail from a long story I wrote a few weeks back on an unhappy experience a big water district in Ventura County had with an underground reservoir.
This unhappy history could be repeating itself in the Mohave desert, with a notorious underground resevoir project known as Cadiz.
Let the reporter herself, Emily Green, an expert in water issues, explain:
When last month the Ventura County Reporter recounted that the capacity [of the Las Posas aquifer] proved to not be the much-celebrated 300,000 acre feet, but instead 50,000 acre feet, no villain was named. Who needs a villain when, as the Reporter ran a rough tally, the cost borne by a water district serving 620,000 people exceeded $53 million?
No, no hand was caught in the civic till. There were only pregnant hints as to the possible miscreant, all implying that it was a one-man job. “After 18 years as general manager for Calleguas, Don Kendall abruptly resigned in May of 2010,” went the Reporter account. “Neither he nor the Calleguas board of directors will discuss with the press the reasons why he left. Nor will any other water official speculate on the record as to why he stalked off a job that paid him a quarter-million dollars a year. Off the record, a Metropolitan insider said that Kendall’s resignation was ‘not unrelated’ to the collapse of the Las Posas ASR deal… “
As it happened, when earlier this week I decided to put up a brief post connecting the early enticements made about Las Posas and a new generation of stunningly high estimates to do with a project best known simply as Cadiz, the fleecing of Ventura County was not on my mind. Orange County was, where a municipal water company has signed on to front the Cadiz project. San Bernardino County was, where the Cadiz target basin is located in the dry Mojave.
All it took to get me wondering aloud about the hard landing that the Ventura County rate payers covered by Calleguas suffered in the Las Posas venture was the chance observation that Las Posas shares a hydrologist with Cadiz. Cadiz has convinced the Rancho Santa Margarita Water District, an Orange County water company only a fraction the size of Calleguas, to go a-prospecting in the San Bernardino desert. Like Calleguas, Rancho Santa Margarita Water District is big enough to be credible, but small enough to be credulous. If only by coincidence, it’s been using hydrological estimates from the same man who consulted Calleguas.
As Green points out, the Los Posas deal cost Calleguas ratepayers about $53 million. The deal also evidently cost the general manager his job, but no one before Green seems to have questioned the consultant involved. The controversial Cadiz deal is expected to cost in the range of $200 million, even though the availability of the land, the delivery of the water, and the condition of the aquifer all look far more dicey than the Ventura County/Los Posas project did in its early days. Here's muckraker Michael Hiltzik on the Cadiz issue three years ago in the LA Times:
As it was presented to the Metropolitan Water District in 2002, the idea was to pump surplus Colorado River water into the aquifer underlying the firm's desert acreage. During droughts, the stored water (along with some indigenous groundwater) would be pumped out for delivery via the aqueduct to a parched Southern California.
If you don't look too closely, the plan has a sort of shimmering authenticity, like a desert mirage. Yes, the state faces a long-term water shortage. And yes, in the midst of drought, sometimes the rain comes down in torrents.
Yet as the MWD realized, reality isn't so simple.
First, there isn't any surplus water in the Colorado. Rather, the basin is in a long-term drought. For the foreseeable future California will be lucky to get its full statutory apportionment of river water. A single extra drop? Forget it.
Second, there's considerable disagreement over how much groundwater really underlies the Cadiz parcels, not to mention how much the company is legally permitted to pump out and how much could be pumped before neighboring aquifers become contaminated with carcinogenic minerals.
Green herself does point the finger, as tough reporters sometimes must, at a consultant for the huge water engineering firm CH2M Hill, a hydrologist named Terry Foreman. She calls him a "serial exaggerator," for his work on the Los Posas and Cadiz aquifers. She also implicitly criticizes yours truly for not delving deeper into the collapse of the Los Posas deal. To this charge I plead guilty, with extenuating circumstances. (After all, that deal fell apart many years ago, and I was focused on its successor, a completely different technology, just as complex, and pricier.)
But more importantly, Green suggests — based on a study of documents — that the former general manager of the Ventura County project, Don Kendall, was himself misled by Foreman. Kendall's successor, Susan Mulligan, who I interviewed at length, and who was a model of responsiveness by a public official, disputes Green's charge. But given Mulligan's good government orientation, I expect that if she were on the spot, that she would take Green's advice:
If Mr Foreman’s work is good, isn’t the best insurance against calamity with Cadiz impartial review of the hydrology as he presents it by the USGS? Only the USGS should do it because it is their model Mr Foreman purports to use on Cadiz to arrive at recharge estimates that are, according to other USGS estimates, wildly high.
At least, I hope so. Here's a chart Green posted of the Los Posas aquifer, the one that was expected to store water in case of drought or disaster not just for Ventura County, but all of SoCal.
Didn't work out that way — a warning to those who would try it again.