Prediction: Science won’t settle Cadiz

Colorado River Aqueduct, looking north into the Cadiz Valley in the Mojave Desert of southeastern California, March 2012

Colorado River Aqueduct, looking north into the Cadiz Valley in the Mojave Desert of southeastern California, March 2012 photo by John Fleck

I have a prediction: clarifying the science will not settle the political argument over the proposed Cadiz water project in the deserts of California.

Chris Clarke wrote this today about Cadiz, a proposal to pump water from beneath the Mojave Desert and pipe it to coastal Southern California cities:

According to an independent hydrologists’ evaluation of the proposed Cadiz Valley water project, project backers used flawed models and incomplete data to forecast the amount of water they could pump out of a desiccated valley in the Mojave Desert.

To which public relations consultant Laer Pearce, who has been flacking for the project, had this to say (scroll down to the comments on Chris’s post):

It is incorrect and misleading to your readers to refer to this new study’s authors as “independent.” They were hired and paid by the National Parks Conservation Association, a longtime opponent of the Cadiz water project and an advocacy group dedicated to resisting commercial enterprises in and around national parks. It is based in Washington, D.C. and has annual revenues of $61 million.

In contrast to the modeling done by the Association’s hydrologists, the studies undertaken by Cadiz are more comprehensive and, most importantly, have been peer reviewed by some of the nation’s leading hydrology experts who serve on the Groundwater Stewardship Committee. This committee will continue to monitor the aquifer as the project progresses to ensure that there are no impacts to the environment.

Which is richly ironic – to accuse project opponents’ scientists of having a lack of independence while citing the work of scientists hired by the project’s supporters. No doubt Pearce is paid to say things like that with a straight face.

Full disclosure: I’ve avoided writing about Cadiz because I haven’t had the time to do the necessary journalistic due diligence on the technical questions involved. If I had time, I would, but I’m not sure it matters, because it’s clear that this is shaping up as a case study in what John Bass recently called “design and the problem of ‘contradictory uncertainties’“. John invokes the work of political scientist Dan Sarewitz (which in meta fashion I pushed on him) regarding the way science does not settle political controversies. John here is writing about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but his argument applies, I think, with a few tweaks, to Cadiz:

My money is on a stalemated, status quo Groundhog Day future, until there is a shift in consciousness and consensus (either rightward or leftward) similar to the one that led to the great environmental movement of the late 1960’s. If that consciousness shifts right, then property rights and Randian selfishness ideology will have won out. If the shift is to the left, toward environmental justice and a willing footing of the bill for remediative machines and regimens, then our evolution will have continued.

The “stalemate” part may apply more effectively to the Delta than Cadiz. But it’s clear that, like in the Delta, science won’t settle this. Values will.



  1. I’d been having the same thought as you about Cadiz and scientific findings. Cadiz’s proponents have picked well. Few people translates to few opponents and less science. Mulroy’s attempt to suck Nevada’s sparse and delicate ecosystem dry will be the precedent for the environmental science argument. Do Joshua trees matter, or don’t they?

  2. Speaking of meta, when that little bit if water is gone, what then? Will SoCal have become so enrichened by this glorious water that they will be able to afford desal by then?

    Meta or obvious, your call.



  3. Speaking of desal and Southern California …

    I was on a tour through the Lower Colorado River last week, and we stopped at the Gene Pumping Plant and were being briefed on SoCal water issues. Some one asked Bill Hasencamp (MWD’s Colorado River guy) about desal.

    Hasencamp said that besides the problems with getting desal plants permitted along the coast which is proving very difficult and several (at least) would be needed, Met’s system delivers by gravity to the service area, with the pipes getting progressively smaller as they deliver water to the inland areas and approach the coast. To input a large amount of desalinated water from the coastal areas would be akin to getting an entire blood transfusion through your little toe.

    Interesting analogy.

  4. I only meant to make the valid point that scientists on both sides have been hired by differing factions, so it is a disservice to readers to call one side, and only one side, independent.

  5. Laer – With all due respect, that’s not what you said over at the KCET site. But more importantly, it’s not what your people have been saying in general about the Groundwater Stewardship Committee:

    “Prior to inclusion of the hydrological studies in the DEIR, they were reviewed and validated by an independent peer review panel, the Project’s Groundwater Stewardship Committee (GSC).”

    That’s from:

    Your people have clearly been going around claiming independence for the GSC, and it’s disingenuous for you to suggest otherwise to Inkstain readers.

  6. Pingback: Capillaries and the cost of desal : jfleck at inkstain

  7. Sarewitz is still wrong.

    The problem here isn’t competing science as such, but the idea that project proponents should be allowed to pick their own scientists. Take that away from them and most of the problem is solved, although of course in many instances ambiguity will remain after analysis.

    So don’t blame the science or scientists, blame their corruption by economic interest groups.

  8. Steve – But it precisely the point that “ambiguity will remain” even if we extract financial interest from the scientists involved that Sarewitz is talking about. In an genuinely “interesting” science (and by “interesting” I mean involving difficult and unsettled questions, among which groundwater surely ranks high) political actors will seize on the side of the ambiguity that supports their political interests. Happens over and over again. That’s the problem Sarewitz is talking about.

  9. How did I miss all this fun? John Fleck, I normally agree with you, but here I don’t think any comparison holds with the Delta. Science won’t settle the Cadiz issue because the genuinely impartial scientists who know most about the hydrology of the Cadiz and Fenner basins — John Izbicki and Peter Martin of the USGS — have been skillfully excluded by the design of the revived project. Cadiz would have us believe that it should only be subjected to California CEQA review and not federal review under NEPA, which would bring in the USGS. This conveniently shuts out the USGS and National Park Service hydrologists who know most about the basin, the recharge and, remarkably, the model used by Cadiz consultants. The groundwater stewardship committee or whatever it’s called is also a Cadiz group. It’s a sop for compliance and a bad joke even by Cadiz’s patently nonsensical groundwater-mining-as-conservation-bad-joke-standards. At public meetings, Cadiz even flew in a supposed groundwater expert from New Hampshire, from an organization where a Cadiz exec was on the board! So, chances are poor that science will settle this, but not because it’s like the Delta, but because the sophistry and greed run too deep.

  10. But note how it’s essential to try to pretend that sophistry and greed are synonymous with good science. It’s as if real, traditional values of that variety are too embarrassing to admit to directly. So now the fight will be over whether to let values (however masked) prevail or kill the project with actual science.

    So this is really a great example of what I’m talking about. Substituting a more science-based process will tend to make for a better decision, in considerable part because the bad guys have to pretend that they too care about the science.

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