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Lots Of Water In The Mojave Desert, But Should It Be Tapped Into?

These small dunes were formed by north winds pushing sands off the Cadiz Dry Lake.
Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

These small dunes were formed by north winds pushing sands off the Cadiz Dry Lake.

Right now, seven western states are in strained negotiations about the fate of a main water source - the Colorado River.

But could help for our western water woes lie just below our feet?

In an area of the Mojave Desert just across the Nevada state line in California, an enormous underground aquifer is being seen as a partial solution to the West's thirst for water. 

But as with all water issues in the West, it's complicated.

The water sits in the Fenner Basin, which is in the Cadiz Valley. The valley is part of the Mojave Trails National Monument, but the basin and the attached water rights belong to a private company.

“It’s a huge amount of water and yet it sits under a pretty fragile ecosystem even though we don’t always think of deserts as fragile ecosystems,” Scott Wilson with the Washington Post told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Wilson recently wrote about the underground lake, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island with as much water as Lake Mead, and the fight over whether the water should be used.

The people who want to draw down the aquifer see it as an opportunity. The people who want to stop the project see it as a threat.

“California is in an almost constant water crisis and so we’re talking about a project that would add 18 billion gallons of new water a year to the overall supply. So that’s an opportunity,” Wilson explained, “The threat is really a threat to the ecology and to a Mojave ecosystem that holds a lot of cultural value to a number of Native American tribes. Is home to the threatened desert tortoise, big horn sheep, not to mention the fact that it’s a prime attraction to many outdoor lovers.”

While those two sides of the issue are already complicated, another problem is the fact that the project would be run by a private company. Cadiz, a publicly traded water company, wants to draw out of the aquifer, pipe it 43 miles to the Colorado River Aqueduct and ship it to Southern California.

“Certainly, the idea of a private company controlling a natural resource to that degree is at the core of the fight over this. Is that something California wants to start going down that road?” Wilson said.

Lawmakers in Sacramento worry about oversight as the project gets going. And there are concerns that the company could charge more money as the water begins to run out, which is another large sticking point in the whole plan. 

Cadiz says it will draw out 50,000 acre-feet from the aquifer every year for 50 years but it will recharge from rain and snow runoff at the rate of about 32,000 acre-feet a year. There will be a net loss of 18,000 acre-feet a year. 

However, that is not what other scientists have found. They believe the water will recharge at a substantially slower rate.

A bill before the California Legislature calls for a pause on the project until the science on how much the aquifer will be recharged is decided. 

Wilson points out that no matter the number there will always be a net loss of water from the aquifer, meaning at some point the water will run out.

The 50,000 acre-feet of water is supposed to supply 100,000 homes in Orange County, but what happens to those homes when the water runs out?

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions that don’t get answered if a private company holds onto this resource," he said.

The biggest sticking point for people in Nevada is what it could mean for California's share of the Colorado River. While it seems like if California gets more water on its own - then it would take less water from the Colorado River.

Wilson said that's actually not what happens. Instead, he said 'new water' actually spurs more growth.

“Are we talking about 18 billion gallons of water that adds to the overall supply as development and the population stands now? Or are we talking about 18 billion new gallons of water that’s also going to end up driving another 10,000 – 20,000 homes being built in Orange County?” he said.

Plus, unless there was an agreement on how the 'new water' is used, there is no guarantee California would take less water from the river.

“California, and particularly the company involved, sees this as ‘new water’ adding to California’s overall supply not a way to help out neighboring states gain additional water or take California water from the Colorado River,” he said.

For now, the project is opposed by some very powerful people from Senator Diane Feinstein to movie star Leonardo DiCaprio. But it has been approved by the water district that provides water to many wealthy areas of Orange County.

Scott Wilson, Senior National Correspondent, The Washington Post.

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.