That’s what it looks like in Rancho Santa Margarita, Orange County, California. It’s a lovely suburb if you swing that way, I suppose. It’s fairly affluent. Median household income in 2007 was just over 95K, according to the usual completely unimpeachable sources, and the percentage of RSM residents living at or below the poverty line is less than 3%.
RSM is also described by the above-mentioned unimpeachable source as having had phenomenal growth in population during the 1990s. The city went from around 11,000 residents to more than 47,000. But the following decade was different. Between 2000 and 2010, RSM added fewer than 1,000 new residents to its Homeowners Association’s membership rolls. That’s not a situation anyone wants, as long as you define “anyone” as “developers.”
The problem is water. RSM is in southern Orange County. Southern Orange county doesn’t have enough groundwater for the people who already live there: there’s no way it can make those needed further 300% increases in its population without finding some.
And so the Santa Margarita Water District is very interested in whatever water they can find. And right now they think they’ve found some.
That’s a long-shot view of the Cadiz Basin in the middle of the California section of the Mojave Desert. It’s right between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. It isn’t untouched wilderness: there are salt evaporating facilities hidden in the distance, and an agricultural venture growing some vines and some fruit trees using groundwater from the basin’s aquifer.
That agricultural venture, Cadiz Inc., wants to sell an amount of the basin’s groundwater to the Santa Margarita Water District, and to a few other water companies in Southern California. A large amount. As much as 50,000 acre-feet a year. It’s a lot of water.
Cadiz maintains that that much water can easily be taken sustainably from the aquifer, and from groundwater that would otherwise flow to the surface and evaporate, thereby being “wasted.” It also plans, eventually, to replenish the aquifer using water from the Colorado River, thus providing a way to store that river’s water in “wet years” for use in dry years.
A person with a bit of familiarity with the Western United States’ environmental history would likely look at this proposal and have the Owens Valley come to mind, or perhaps that movie where Jack Nicholson gets his nose lacerated by a child molester. And that wouldn’t be far off: it’s yet another example of the west’s cities treating their outback as resource colonies to be plundered. I wrote an admittedly severely biased and non-even-handed summary of the project here, and there’s some preliminary discussion of just exactly how stupid the project proponents’ hydrology claims are here. A glimpse of that last: Cadiz claims the two aquifers it would be tapping recharge at an average of 32,477 acre-feet per year, justifying their pumping plans to fill decorative lakes in RSM. (You didn’t think that lake in the picture up top was there when the developers moved in, did you?)
According to the independent hydrologists quoted in the second piece, that recharge figure is about the same as for aquifers on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, fed by that range’s snowmelt, in creeks that might well drown a person in spring.
There’s lots of other fun facts about this project too, like how Cadiz sidestepped federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act by planning a pipeline along an existing railroad right of way, which it justifies by saying the railroad — essentially abandoned — could use the water to put out trestle fires. By escaping NEPA, Cadiz escapes having the USGS review its hydrology.
Or about how the whole plan depends on Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District allowing the use of its aqueduct to move the water. Cadiz and MWD just ended an almost decade-long court battle stemming from MWD’s spiking a previous iteration of the proposal, so you might expect some bad blood there.
However, several members of MWD’s board are appointed by the Mayor of Los Angeles. The current mayor of Los Angeles is Antonio Villaraigosa. Antonio Villaraigosa is a former employee of, and current occasional traveling companion of, a British expatriate named Keith Brackpool, who somehow put his life back together after pleading guilty to securities fraud in the UK and leaving the country. He’s doing well enough to have fronted $25K to Villaraigosa’s inaugural ball. He’s also the CEO of Cadiz, Inc.
I could go on. In fact, I already have. The best way to find out more about the project is to check out water reporter Emily Green’s blog. There’s a few lawsuits pending to stop the project, and either the BLM or Dianne Feinstein might yet put the kibosh on the whole thing.
In July, former Rancho Santa Margarita mayor Garry Thompson said in support of Cadiz “You’ve all been out there, there’s nothing out there in that desert anyway.”
It’s funny. I feel the same way about most of Orange County. In truth, the project stands a good chance of drawing down groundwater levels across hundreds of square miles of mainly intact desert habitat by pumping Pleistocene water from the aquifer, depleting or drying up springs in the Mojave National Preserve and a few nearby wilderness areas, which would have a very bad impact on the local wildlife — including desert bighorn sheep. All for the sake of swelling the ranks of RSM’s homeowners’ associations.
The National Parks Conservation Association is one of the groups suing over the project’s likely effects on the Preserve. You can find out more about their involvement here. Consider slipping them a few bucks if this project appalls you.
This has been an ongoing problem for such a long time, the explosive growth in the desert, coupled with the fact that people still want green lawns.
And it’s not dissimilar to the situation in west Texas, where T. Boone Pickens has been buying up rights to the Ogallala Aquifer, with the intention of sending the water east in the direction of Dallas, another water-hungry city that can’t be bothered to include conservation in its water plan (it might have gotten a little better; I left there in 2006, but I’d be surprised if they’ve gotten any more friendly toward conservation). With the water laws in Texas that basically are first come, first serve, he stands a good chance of succeeding, and if he doesn’t, someone else will (as Pickens is fond of pointing out). We’ve taken water for granted for a long time; now, this summer, when Nebraska farmers were sucking air from their center pivots, some people are starting to get worried.
Dalillama, Schmott Guy says
Wait, wait, I know this trick You have to have some fresh cheese on hand, that you can roll in the dust. Then you squeeze the whey out of it, fooling the giant into believing that you can get water from a stone.
The low-hanging fruit keeps moving higher up.
Companies like Cadiz and Poseidon are simply supply-side variants of the City of Los Angeles and its investors of the early 20th century, who ultimately went on to drain the Owens Valley and make a few people very wealthy.
California is currently seeing its expansionist dreams put on hold by water supply problems, most of which are traceable to the fact that new supplies are just not there.
A better approach would be a combination of conservation and water recycling, whereby highly treated wastewater (yes, including sewage) is made fit for landscape irrigation and limited potable use (such as groundwater recharge).
But anyone who has lived in Southern California knows that the deal killer has been “Toilet to Tap,” in which anti-recyclers have convinced people that water has a “memory” of having once been mixed with wastew. Consequently, nobody wants to consume water molecules that have been labeled “tainted.” It’s insane.
Sooner or later, humans are going to catch on to the fact that we actually can’t move into a desert and use water in quantities more appropriate for a temperate rainforest without it biting us in the ass.
Perhaps if a large river, like, oh, the Colorado, stopped flowing all the way to the ocean because of how much was diverted off it for human activity, it would serve as a wake-up call.
@#1: I’m from the Texas Panhandle originally. I was recently back visiting family, and was shocked at how much my rock-ribbed Republican relatives and old classmates despised Pickens, and were actually beginning to see that water isn’t limitless, that trying to make north Amarillo look like Seattle is a bad idea, and that their children and grandchildren might have to move away, even if they don’t want to. Of course, it’s probably too much to hope that they’ll become good liberal Democrats anytime soon, but I thought it was a hopeful start.
Hang on. I haven’t looked at any links yet, but….
They want to take more water from the Colorado ?
Take the word “north” out before “Amarillo” in # 5.
Would it really be so hard to make editing possible here?
The way water is treated as some infinite and magically bottomless resource is deeply frustrating, and I suspect reflects our lack of understanding of water-cycles, long and short term. The idea that as soon as rain hits un-farmed earth it is ‘lost’ is just pig-headed, and that aquifers are sitting there doing nothing is painful. Australia has come a little way in realising that decades of unregulated exploitation of sub-terranean water has potential side-effects (lower water tables, salinity, loss of recharge rates and natural springs) and yet people still wave their arms magnanamously at artesian basins claiming we have plenty of water to cram the continent with more people. What other resource on earth is so misunderstood? Oh, other than effects of large scale fishing, academia, women, alternative medicine… crap. We really are just a dumb species.
Fucking non-metric system:
so, leeet’s see: 1233,49 cubic meters by 50.000 means…
1300 cubic meters per person per year, but what can you do: Custom demands that rich people get an expensive front lawn even near a desert.
Alethea H. "Crocoduck" Dundee says
Decorative. Frackin’. LAKES. Are you fucking kidding me? Has no-one ever heard of xeriscaping?
Thank heavens for Diane Feinstein, the only person in congress who actually looks out for the Mojave. Even most of the local congresscritters are nutters, and would advocate praying for Gawd to replenish the aquifers.
Getting more water out of the Colorado for artificial lakes? Yeah, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado are gonna luv us for that.
That happened decades ago.
The Colorado hasn’t made it to the sea in a long time.
That is true of many world rivers. The Nile doesn’t reach the sea, the Murray-Darling (IIRC) and many others.
The same reasoning that says AGW is impossible because people are tiny compared to the big earth, and that the earth is self regulating and/or God has promised to provide for us and/or the Bible says that we are here to use the bounty of the earth and it is our duty to consume all consumables.
I swear, these guys would turn all the world into a saltpan if it meant their little bubble would be green and wet.
How do you do first-come first-serve when using water on my property takes water out of your property?
LOL, I’ve driven by that lake before. I wondered what a lake was doing in aouthern Orange county.
This is just round zillion in the perpetual California water wars. They’ve been going on for a century.
What is the recharge rate for the Cadiz basin or does anyone even know. From the picture, it looks like they can pump 50,000 acre feet. Until the aquifer runs dry. This is just water mining, using water left over from the last ice age.
Saudi Arabia did that. They had a wheat project that used pleistocene water. It worked for a few decades. Until they pumped the aquifers out.
I’ll bet RSM (or the HOA’s therein) have regulations about how the yard should look, or not having clothes lines visible.
chigau (棒や石) says
There is something about this that reminds of this.
FossilFishy (Νεοπτόλεμος's spellchecker) says
If I think about this sort of thing too long I get all ragey then all despairy. So instead I’m going to ask: acre/feet, really? I thought you folk measured water in mouthfuls per cubic furlong.
Markita Lynda—damn misogyny! says
What I’ve seen in Orange County is that, instead of xeriscaping and laying down fire-resistant gravel, cities plant something called “ice plant,” which is a succulent that grows about eight inches high, and water it daily to ensure that it’s fat and full of water all over boulevards and embankments, to stop brushfires if they come to lick up all the highly flammable eucalyptus trees the developers planted around their million-dollar homes and shopping plazas. Of course, away from the rich suburbs it’d dry, dry, dry.
Markita Lynda—damn misogyny! says
Its. And they water construction sites, because it wouldn’t do to have dust drift onto a rich person’s house.
Ice plant, of course, being native to the fog-drenched slopes of Northern California.
WTF is an acre-foot? How much is that in normal units i.e. cubic metres? (Or kilolitres, which are the same thing, as are tonnes of water.)
gee I so shocked southern California real estate developers push for more water so they can sell more houses and making rosy predictions. any thing to make the sale after that you can all get screwed
I lived in the high desert for a bit. within walking distance (granted, I use a much broader definition of that term then most people…) of the aqueduct.
Almost any given day, I could walk less then 1/2 a mile, and come across a street with water flowing down the gutter, from some jackass over-watering their damned lawn.
In the desert.
lawns. should. not. exist.
I’m pretty sure some of the communities required them. :(
For a species with disproportionately large brains, we can be really damned stupid.
This paragraph alone says it all. Hell, even the concept of ‘wet year’ is already ludicrous, as if to say that the Colorado fucking RIVER actually having WATER is an anomolous surplus.
Oh and for what its worth, add my voice to the “acre-feet WTF” group. It seems to be equal to 1233.5kL / tons of water.
I just… 300% increase in population? Needed? FOR WHAT?
Ok, I know more or less for what… but really? In the desert? Because… it’s cool to brag about how you live in the desert, even though it’s been irrigated to pieces, in the process taking water from places that actually need it? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.
The long-term thinking in these kinds of plans is atrocious. And by atrocious, I really mean non-existent.
Thanks, Chris, for another depressing start to the day. I mean that in a good way. :)
I should turn this computer off and go to bed early but first.
It is true the water is in the desert that makes no sense but it is old water underground but the plan is to take it out of the ground probably way faster than it is going in the ground and pump it away. The destination is not a desert it is semi arid land that during Spanish times and up until rather recent times was cattle ranching and other farming.
I have not looked it up but the land was once Coast live Oaks forest or chaparral which had trees in it in.
The urban/suburban settled parts of southern California are not in the desert proper though there are plenty of people who live in the desert. The problem is the population grew to big for the naturally occurring water many many years ago but the temps were great and building was easy and the developers have won every decision so far.
I live here and I like to be accurate LA is not a desert nor is Orange county nor San Diego nor Santa Barbara.
It is now but as an invasive species.
A lot of people who live in California aren’t from California. That includes the plants.
Cant be be bothered to check on a map but if this town is downwind of the ‘reservoir’ then the desert will quickly turn to dust and blow over their green lawns anyway thus getting rid of all of the residents and solving the problem PDQ.
In 20 years, Saudi Arabia managed to use up 10,000 years worth of fossil water. To produce wheat, a dryland crop that normally isn’t even considered worth irrigating.
This Cadiz basin transfer will probably do the same thing, work until all the fossil water is pumped out.
Tyrant al-Kalām says
Just wanted to say that I really like the environmental/ecology angle you add to Pharyngula. Now if only the actual stories weren’t so depressing…
We have a wonderfully diverse world and yet all we can do is turn every last bit of into a bit of ‘look how rich I am I don’t have to put sheep on this bit of pasture’ lawn.
They want to take
and use it for ornamental lakes? Because it won’t evaporate from a lake surface? Or because it’s not a ‘waste’ if people get to look at it lying there evaporating?
My oldest friend moved to RSM to start her family about 25 years ago. She took me to the exact lake in the picture when I went to visit her there after she moved in.
total yuppiedom THEN. Can’t imagine it with 50K people.
now, this summer, when Nebraska farmers were sucking air from their center pivots, some people are starting to get worried.
NOW they’re getting worried?
man, anyone with half a brain could see this coming 20 years ago.
really smart people saw it coming 50 years ago.
and then there’s the few people that still can recall what the dustbowl days were like in the last century…
the west is fucking doomed.
OTOH, here in Hobbitton, OZ is eyeing us for invasion ’cause we have all the water. Moreover, even though we get plenty of rainfall here, STILL the local governments encourage water conservation. Go figure.
Sometimes I think I made the sane choice coming here.
What smarty pants had the brilliant idea of planting explosive trees everywhere anyway??? And who thought that planting succulents was going to have any noticeable effect on the inevitable fires?
Funny about different cultures. In Australia the brown dried lawn is how summer looked and smelled throughout my childhood. It’s what they’re supposed look like.
We have water restrictions that ban watering your garden except for at certain times and a big push to install your own rainwater tank or greywater facility for garden, toilet, etc. And I’m led to believe we also have more efficient toilets. A few years ago there was a big campaign (in Victoria) urging people to target using only 155 lt per day, and strategies to help achieve that.
Local governments have moved toward planting natives that can handle the environment without special care.
And frankly we could still do a lot better.
The idea that you should dig up more water and pillage the landscape instead of learning to be more careful with what you have is mind boggling.
I”ll bet several of you have read the book: “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water”, Marc Reisner, 1993, as you seem very well informed, if you haven’t I highly recommend it. It is arguably the best analysis of western (American) water issues and history written for the public, ever. It documents so much burning stupid that I’m surprised the book itself doesn’t burst into flame. Written 20 years ago a lot of his projections are just beginning to bear out.
I second the rec for “Cadillac Desert.” I read it at the U. Of Nevada many years ago, with a prof who I’m pretty sure at the time we all thought was a giant bummer doom-and-gloomie pants, Jeez, what peed in his Cheerios this morning? Now, of course, it’s all coming true (and already was coming true, but it was harder to see, especially for 19-year-olds).
Interesting map of per capita water usage.
I’m not sure if ag use is included (one source that linked to said map said yes, another said no).
The best source of ag related water use is the Department of Water Resources. Can’t find a pretty map off hand, but the data is there. I could probably whip one up without too much effort if there is interest.
Personally, I think there should be a statewide law that all landscaping, personal and commercial, shall only be composed of native plants or food crops. I wouldn’t even mind the horror of golf courses if they were irrigated with treated waste water (already really common) and grazed with goats or sheep instead of smoke spewing mowers. If we as a community are going to blow a bunch of communal water it should have more than one use.
Back to the OP, I am flabbergasted that a reflecting pond in the desert is a “beneficial use” of water. If they got a permit for that I’d love to see it. They probably filled the pools with mined groundwater.
California’s water laws are fucked up. Surface water is regulated under two completely different legal frameworks and groundwater is totally unregulated. This has resulted in the usual tragedy of the commons. Aquifers have collapsed and might never be resurrected no matter how much you inject in the future. Shit hasn’t gotten any better since the 70s
Lynna, OM says
I found coverage of the Cadiz Basin water issue in the mormon newspaper, Deseret News, in Salt Lake City. This gives Cadiz Ranch, and some of the regulation-avoiding tactics, a whiff of mormonism.
The LDS Church is notorious for controlling and selling water rights in the western states, and even in some other states where their for-profit arm owns ranches, like Florida. I think this calls for investigation.
@25: Yes, yes, yes. As I mentioned above, I grew up in the Texas Panhandle. During a recent visit (I haven’t actually lived there for 40 years) I was heartened by the fact that some people, at least, are seeing the necessity for xeriscaping, using native plants, and such, and that it is often aesthetically pleasing. However, lots of developments still look like they think they are living in New England–lush lawns (often overwatered as you mention), big thirsty trees, pools. It’s insane. It’s the freakin’ desert. Accept it or move (I know, easy for me to say, but still…).
@38: That’s because you don’t have the AMERICAN ENTERPRENEURIAL SPIRIT!
Re: acre-feet. It’s the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land in water 1ft deep. 1 acre foot is the a stage water use per household per year here on Austin.
We started to get good at the lingo in Central Texas since we just finished a crippling drought of record, and despite what feels like a lot of rain, our reservoirs are still only 45% full and the springs are flowing sluggishly.
One of the most prominent & successful CSA Farms in the area has had their never-gone-dry-in-100 years well suddenly start sucking air, but the developers deny it has anything to do with the massive subdivisions and well-watered soccer fields that are popping up around their fields….
Chris Clarke says
Apologies for the parochialism. An acre-foot is as cgilder describes in #45. It’s the standard unit of measurement of large amounts of water across the American West, and equals approx. 1,233.4 cubic meters, 325,851.4 US gallons or, for those of you in the UK, 30,147.6 firkins.
chigau (棒や石) says
Water doesn’t grow on trees.
That happened to one of my relatives.
It’s been dry and hot in much of the USA this year.
They have a well for irrigation. It’s 40 years old and has never gone dry.
It went dry a few weeks ago.
They don’t quite understand why it went dry. The aquifer has been pumped out. They know that, they are just having a hard time accepting it.
Why on earth would we invade East Tasmania?!
I wish the prats ‘managing’ the Murray River and the Great Artesan Basin (the largest such basin in the world I hear) had a tenth of that sense of responsibility.
I remember the first time I drove from Colorado west into California years ago. Smack in the middle of what looked like desert I remember seeing housing developments with golf courses as green as any Irish field. I just thought to myself that can’t be right. But then I always found the obsession with picture perfect, uniform green grass yards one so often sees in the Western and Southwestern US baffling (I’m European). The water wasted even in places like Denver to keep the neighbourhood looking like an alpine meadow is just beyond comprehension. What’s wrong with a more natural, “weedy” garden?
This worries the hell out of me. Mainly because once you idiots down there use up all your freshwater, you’re most likely to expect to pipe in water from Canada to slake your thirst instead of becoming, you know, responsible with your water usage.
And most likely, our idiot populace will just accept it.
How far off are the Water Wars?
Yes, that was obvouys to all of us. The real quaestion was WTF use such a silly measure?
Given Chris’s figure of 1,233.4 cubic metres, that’s 1,233,400 litres, which is aproximately 22 years of my personal use. Exactly how many people do you have in your average household?
Oh boy … the Magic Aquifer strikes again. I thought folks must have learnt their lessons from the fiascoes 70 years ago. It also annoys me when no one mentions the depth of the aquifer. The perched water table (which I wouldn’t consider an aquifer) can recharge quickly and a few shallow aquifers which are fed from highly fractured areas can also be recharged by some large amount (weather permitting), but generally the deep aquifers recharge so slowly that for us ephemeral humans we may as well consider them as a fixed volume which isn’t recharged. Another thing which is never mentioned in articles is that the water has to migrate through a hell of a lot of sand from the recharge point to the extraction point. If you have a flow rate of 3 feet/year you’re doing well. As for recharging with water from the Colorado – hell, we already pull way too much water out of that river and people are still complaining they haven’t got enough. Not to mention that would make the water hellishly expensive since it takes far more powerful pumps to push the stuff down than to extract it. Oh well, anything for a buck.
Would desalination be a good idea?
I’ve seen some environmentalists kvetch about that, and I will concede that it has the difficulties of disposing very salty water and consuming a lot of energy.
Chris Clarke says
Well, think about it. The underpinnings of western U.S. water policy were set starting in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the major human use of water other than for looking at was irrigated agriculture. If you’re arguing with your neighbors and the people upstream and downstream and that burgeoning city with the aqueduct, you want to adjudicate shares in units that are transparent and appropriate to the context. And if your opponents across the bargaining table are mainly irrigators or their representaties as well, that context is irrigated ag.
Farmers know how many acres they have in cultivation. They know how many inches of water a crop needs most years to provide a commercial return. If you grow cotton that needs (say) 6 inches of water a season to produce a viable crop, and you plan to plant 650 acres in the stuff, would you rather calculate how much water you’ll need in acre-feet, or in cubic meters, or metric tonnes, or petamoles?
Chris Clarke says
I actually had lunch with one of the Senior VPs of the concentrating solar company BrightSource a week ago, and asked if they’ve considered doing desal. They have and probably will once remote solar fails as a business strategy. (Which admittedly isn’t precisely what he said.) Using a concentrating solar mirror array would certainly take care of the energy element. Some of the brine could be used for thermal storage in associated Combined Heat and Power energy generation. I suspect a clever marketing team could come up with industrial uses for some of the rest of it. Probably not all of it.
Desal is going to have to happen within the next 50 years in California or many people will die unpleasantly, is my sense of things.
Would desalination be a good idea?
I witnessed 1st hand how that has worked out in the Santa Barbara area.
like So Cal, the move to build the desal plant was not driven by EXISTING water needs, but rather, developers who wanted to create massive NEW developments in the area. The desal plant wouldn’t even cover normal growth in the area, let alone the projects being planned, but they did it anyway, and used the excuse of their being a desal plant to overbuild huge areas.
now there is a bigger water shortage than ever.
so… NO. this is a bad idea, because it is being driven not by current water needs, but merely as a “mitigating” factor for more development projects.
it’s basically a lie.
… to be clearer, desal itself is not a terrible idea (it’s bloody expensive though), but the REASONS for building them have to based on CURRENT needs, not fucking projected development projects that they wouldn’t even come close to covering.
hope that’s understandable?
Why on earth would we invade East Tasmania?!
many reasons, apparently…
Yes, that was my point: we’re epically screwing ourselves when it comes to water usage and there isn’t enough people paying attention to that fact to actually do anything about it.