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The Science of Desert Water

To explain why she authored a bill to protect water in the Mojave Desert, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman goes back to her childhood. Growing up in Plantation, Florida, on the edge of the Everglades, the 50-year-old Glendale Democrat had a “front-row seat” to the destruction of the swamps, sloughs, and mangrove forests that spread across most of South Florida.

“I saw the devastation that was wrought from not caring about that resource,” Friedman says. South Florida’s water is less protected now, and its coastline is more vulnerable to the sea-level rise that accompanies the changing climate. “I watched the economic and environmental toll it took,” Friedman says. “I don’t want to see the same thing happen to my home in California.”

The Mojave is Friedman’s parallel to the Everglades. Both places host species unique to the planet. Both in their undisturbed states are carbon sinks that could help the planet recover from climate havoc. And both, in their day, have been regarded as wastelands. In the 19th Century, white settlers believed the noblest thing they could do with the Everglades was to drain it dry. In the 20th Century, the highest and best use of the Mojave was believed to be testing nuclear bombs.

The nuclear tests have long since ended, but the Mojave has also been diminished by sprawl, along with garbage dumping, mining, and renewable energy development projects that occupy several square miles each. Now it again faces another potential threat: The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, which would extract 50,000 acre feet of water a year  from an ancient aquifer and send it to the Colorado River Aqueduct. An acre foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot. U.S. Geological Survey scientists in 2000 determined that the project, which has been designed to serve the needs of 400,000 people in Southern California, would pull out more groundwater every year than natural forces could replenish in 10 years.

But an environmental impact report, commissioned by the Santa Margarita Water District, a potential Cadiz customer, claimed the pumping would have little impact on groundwater supplies. Friedman’s proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 1000, would require that the discrepancy between the two reports be settled before the Cadiz project can move ahead.

Friedman says she did not set out to “target Cadiz” but “to recognize that this was a fragile area with a large aquifer under it.” The newly designated (and now threatened) Mojave Trails National Monument sits atop the aquifer Cadiz would draw from, and new research is being conducted to establish whether the monument’s protected seeps and springs depend on the water below. “We want to make sure that any water project in this area doesn’t hurt the ecosystem around it,” Friedman says. That goes for any water project near national parks, monuments and wilderness areas in the desert, she says. “It’s not a ‘stop-Cadiz-from-doing-anything’ bill. It’s just to make sure we have safeguards.”

As exceprted from Capital and Main