By Tommy Hough
Any fan of the outdoors in Southern California worth their salt knows the harsh landscape of the desert also has a soft side, whether it's the gentle, sandy slopes of the Cadiz Dunes, the coat of a wild desert kit fox, or the visual splendor and riot of color of the spring wildflower bloom.
Our deserts are some of our nation's last truly wild places and sources of needed elbow room. And with five new wilderness areas having been established by the recent public lands bill signed into law last month, more of our Southern California deserts are being managed for conservation than ever before.
Curiously, the desert has another resource some in Washington, and here in California, are eager to tap into and exploit: water.
An area called the Fenner Basin in the Mojave Desert is home to a massive, crescent-shaped underground aquifer that holds trillions of gallons of groundwater, and feeds at least five springs in the eastern Mojave that are critical for area wildlife and regional ecosystems. The age of the aquifer is also significant, with some estimates placing it at around 10,000 years old. Its presence ensures the region will never be entirely baked into oblivion by punishing summertime temperatures, or by our warming climate.
The northern end of the aquifer was first protected when Fenner Basin was drawn into the original boundaries of Mojave National Preserve, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton as part of the Desert Protection Act of 1994.
In 2016, after years of galvanizing public support for wilderness initiatives, desert advocates scored another victory for American conservation when President Obama established Mojave Trails National Monument along wild portions of old U.S. Route 66, incorporating the southern portion of the Fenner Basin aquifer.
Unfortunately, shortly after the arrival of the Trump administration, the Interior Department unveiled a plan to reduce the boundaries of over 20 National Monuments, mostly in the west. Mojave Trails was included on that chopping block, and while Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, both located in Utah, had their boundaries shrunk, at this point the same fate has not befallen Mojave Trails. Not yet.
The Trump administration's move to shrink National Monument boundaries is unprecedented, and in the case of Mojave Trails, it's clear the point is to facilitate the pumping of the Fenner Basin aquifer for commercial purposes. The only company interested in doing so is Cadiz, a Los Angeles-based conglomerate with significant ties to the Trump administration and Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt, whose lobbying firm has represented Cadiz on this matter in the past. Cadiz owns property within the National Monument and wants to tap into the aquifer beneath its inholding.
Cadiz claims its wells can pump at least 16 billion gallons of water each year from the aquifer for 50 years without harming any springs, wildlife or plants on the surface. The company claims the aquifer receives about two-thirds of the amount of water they plan to draw out annually from rain and snow, but the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service say no.
According to those agencies, the Cadiz project would pump up to 25 times more water than the aquifer receives each year, lowering the water table and drying up local springs – thus harming the desert wildlife that has relied on those springs for centuries. The Cadiz Project will aggravate desertification, and decimate a cross section of Mojave Desert wildlife and ecology as it tries to steal and sell groundwater from one of the driest places in the United States.
Curiously, in the Trump administration's haste in re-writing federal railroad right-of-way laws in order to facilitate the Cadiz plan, they missed the fact that any pipeline from the Cadiz inholding in Mojave Trails must cross state land. While the state lands commission has the final say on how a pipeline may be placed and utilized on land that belongs to California taxpayers, there have been recent moves in the legislature to head the problem off with bills that would have prevented Cadiz and the Trump administration from draining the aquifer.
Unfortunately, the bills were killed in committee in the State Senate, and the critical policy affecting the aquifer never implemented. So conservationists are once again going to bat, this time for SB 307, introduced by State Senator Richard Roth (D–Riverside). The bill would enable the protection of the Fenner Basin aquifer beneath Mojave Trails, and at last, put an end to the destructive Cadiz proposal. If passed by the State Senate, Assembly passage would be likely.
The bill is up for a vote in the California Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, after Cadiz asked for more time to formulate a response. SB 307 needs a resounding yes from the committee as the bill heads to the full State Senate. One of the votes SB 307 needs is Senator Ben Hueso, whose 40th Senate District includes much of southern San Diego County and Imperial County.
As a Californian, outdoorsman, and co-founder and first president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, I'd like to ask Sen. Hueso to consider the science, the proud conservation heritage of our state, the need to preserve our natural aquifers and water resources, and the need to resist the environmentally destructive Trump agenda – and vote yes on SB 307 in the Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
Photos by Michael Gordon and Tommy Hough.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.