Ancient non-renewable water lies under Mojave Desert. Ethical to harvest it?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Below the Mojave Desert, trillions of gallons of water sit in an underground aquifer stretching hundreds of square miles on either side of Interstate 40. Photo by Shutterstock.

Deep below the Mojave Desert is liquid gold — trillions of gallons of water in an underground aquifer stretching hundreds of square miles on either side of Interstate 40. It’s been there for thousands of years, but only a tiny bit of it is actually tapped and harvested. So it could be a way to ease some of California’s water woes. Private companies are trying to do just that, but they’re running into obstacles from conservationists who question the ethics of it, and Native tribes who have a spiritual connection to water in this region.

Brett Simpson wrote about the fight over California’s ancient, underground water for The Atlantic. 

She explains how the Fenner aquifer came to be: “During the last ice age, the Mojave climate was much wetter. And during that time, when a lot of water was falling, some of it seeped down into the soil. And it just kept seeping deeper and deeper. And yeah, it's just fresh groundwater. … It's as much as 34 million acre-feet, which is about enough to fill 17 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

She explains that Cadiz, Inc. is leading the effort to tap the aquifer, and they’re creating one pipeline that will connect to the Colorado River, and another that will go through central valley communities that don’t currently have access to water. 

Meanwhile, they’re emphasizing that they’re a water storage company. “They're saying they're creating space in the aquifer, they're selling this water, and somewhere down the line there will be surplus or flood water from the Colorado River that then we can stick back underground and keep it safe from evaporation.”

She continues, “[Cadiz is] making a strong case [that] California's water infrastructure is broken. ‘We are an infrastructure project, we can bring water not just to wealthy Southern California neighborhoods, but to other folks who need it.’ And yeah, I think that that goes back to this … essential, ethical question: Should we take this water out, should we take it out now, and who is it going to?”

The company has faced challenges from conservationists and the Chemehuevi tribe. 

“For them, Bonanza Springs, if it is connected, it is protected under the Mojave Trails National Monument, and it is a sacred stopping point in their salt songs trail ritual, which is an ancient ceremonial loop through the desert. One hundred and forty-two songs that they sing at the sacred stopping point along the way. And a spiritual and physical description of the landscape is embedded in the songs.”

How does Simpson see all this playing out? She says amid the state’s mega-drought, harvesting water from the Fenner aquifer could start sounding sensible to lots of people, and Cadiz is confident about making headway. 

“At this point, time will tell. So far, time has been on this water’s side, but we'll have to see.”