Cadiz Inc., an L.A. company that plans to store and sell billions of gallons of water beneath its desert land holdings, is adding a new track to its project, literally: running a steam train in the middle of the Mojave.

Cadiz executives recently inked a deal with Arizona & California Railroad Co. for use of an 85-mile rail line between the Cadiz Valley and the Arizona-California border.

The executives say they want to run the steam train and build a railroad-themed museum to attract nostalgia buffs and tap into lucrative desert tourism and festival markets.

“The Cadiz railway is not something only rail fans will enjoy,” said company Chief Executive Scott Slater. “It will provide new activities in the desert as well as offer a new destination in Cadiz not currently available.”  

But the company’s critics have a different take on the matter.

They say Cadiz is using the steam train as a way to avoid federal environmental review of the water project, as pipelines that serve working railways are exempt from some regulations.

The rail line would run next to a water pipeline Cadiz plans to build to transport water from the aquifer to the Colorado River Aqueduct, but now it also would service the steam engine and lie within the railroad’s right-of-way.

As such, it would seem to be exempt from federal environmental review under a 2011 U.S. Department of Interior interpretation that dealt with railroad right-of-way pipelines and other uses alongside railroads are exempt from federal jurisdiction as long as they “serve a purpose for the railroad.”

“We really believe this is a steam train to nowhere and that it’s an ad hoc justification for avoiding federal scrutiny,” said Seth Shteir, California desert senior representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, an Arlington, Va., advocacy group opposed to the Cadiz water project.

Avoiding habitats

Slater denied any attempt to skirt environmental review.

In fact, his position is that the water pipeline already is planned to be in the railroad right-of-way and therefore on private property and not subject to federal jurisdiction – with or without the proposed steam train.

He noted the pipeline was originally sited next to the rail line because it was the only route that did not cross critical habitats for the desert tortoise and other rare plant and animal species. That was a major reason why Cadiz in 2008 signed a 99-year lease for the right-of-way with Arizona & California Railroad, now a unit of Genesee & Wyoming Inc., a railroad holding company in Greenwich, Conn.

The steam excursion line grew separately out of a visit Slater and his family made six years ago to a steam train museum in Bishop, a popular attraction in the area.

“I immediately started thinking about the possibilities for Cadiz,” he said.

About a century ago, Cadiz was a stop on a steam train line between Los Angeles and Phoenix. In fact, Slater said, the Cadiz aquifer was first discovered by railroad operators scouting for water for the steam locomotives.

“The history is definitely there,” he said.

The company hired consultant Rob Mangels, a steam train and railroad industry veteran, to develop the plan, which calls for one train a day to run 42 miles from Parker west to Rice, midway along the rail line. The train would run three or four days a week from November through May. Once a week, a train would run the entire 85 miles between Parker and Cadiz Valley. Additional trains would run on an ad hoc basis, primarily for special events.

Mangels said Cadiz would target three markets: steam train enthusiasts, local residents interested in the region’s history and, most importantly, the desert tourist market. Specifically, he said Cadiz would try to get the steam train added as part of tour group packages.

“Right now, somewhere around 1 million people on tourist buses pass through Parker and other points near the rail line each year on their way to Joshua Tree National Park, Lake Havasu, the Grand Canyon and other destinations,” Mangels said. “We want to capture a portion of that huge market.”

Slater added that he hoped the steam train excursion line would also draw in some of the motorists using historic Route 66, which passes a couple of miles north of the planned Cadiz rail terminus. Cadiz eventually hopes to mount or co-host several festivals along the route, possibly even smaller-scale versions of the popular Burning Man festival or Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

But environmental opponents see something else behind the steam train excursion, namely a way to avoid having to get more approvals for the water project, which would store billions of gallons of water underneath Cadiz’s 50 square miles of land holdings and sell the water to regional agencies.

After an initial deal with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California collapsed in 2002 under political and environmental opposition, Cadiz came back with a scaled-down plan and signed agreements with several water agencies in Southern California. Last year, Orange County’s Santa Margarita Water District and San Bernardino County approved environmental review documents for the project, prompting several lawsuits from environmental groups, two of which are ongoing.

The opponents want a federal environmental review because it would take another look at key assertions that Cadiz made in the environmental documents.

Cadiz plans to pump roughly 50,000 acre-feet of water from its holdings annually. (An acre-foot typically supplies two households for a year.) The company says that natural runoff from surrounding mountains into the aquifer would put back roughly two-thirds of the water each year. Cadiz plans to make up the difference by importing water.

But environmental groups cite independent estimates that natural runoff would put only about 10 percent of this water back into the aquifer, leading to its rapid depletion and devastating effects on plant and animal wildlife that depend on the water. They also claim that the aquifer’s disappearance could lead to dust clouds and air pollution.

Under a federal review, scientists might conclude that the Cadiz project would pose too many harmful consequences and therefore should not go forward.

The parks association has enlisted aid from Rep. Paul Cook, a freshman Republican whose district includes Apple Valley and much of the desert territory to the east.

In June, Cook wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, insisting that the Interior Department conduct a full environmental review of the entire Cadiz water project, including the pipeline. Cadiz signed the deal with the railroad in September but Cook maintains his position on the environmental review despite the rail plan.

Engine overhauls

Still, there is another, perhaps even more fundamental question: whether the excursion line rail plan is even financially viable.

Drawing tourists might prove a formidable challenge, train excursion experts say. Only a handful of the 100 or so steam train excursion lines across the country have enough popularity to turn a substantial profit. These lines are either at a popular destination, such as the Grand Canyon, or pass through spectacular scenery, such as the Durango-Silverton rail line through the gorges of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

“From what I can tell, the Cadiz railway would have neither of these attributes,” said Aaron Isaacs, editor of Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums magazine in Minneapolis. “Most of the other steam train excursion lines don’t make oodles of money.”

Isaacs also pointed out that running a steam train on a regular basis can be very expensive. Federal law requires that the locomotives be completely overhauled after every 1,472 days of operation or 15 years, whichever comes first; the boiler overhaul can cost as much as $500,000. The company could hit that mark in five to seven years.

But Mangels said Cadiz would likely switch off between two locomotives, which would stretch out the requirement to close to 15 years. Also, the company plans to overhaul the locomotives before putting them into service and pay close attention to maintenance.

“We can probably keep that federally mandated repair down close to $100,000,” he said.

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