Investors Are Mining for Water, the Next Hot Commodity

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The full article by Nelson D. Schwartz was originally written for The New York Times

CADIZ, Calif. — Gazing out of a turboprop high above his company’s main asset — 34,000 acres in the Mojave Desert with billions of gallons of fresh water locked deep below the sagebrush-dotted land — Scott Slater paints a lush picture that has enticed a hardy band of investors for a quarter-century.

Yes, Mr. Slater admits, his company, Cadiz, has never earned a dime from water. And he freely concedes it will take at least another $200 million to dig dozens of wells, filter the water and then move it 43 miles across the desert through a new pipeline before thirsty Southern Californians can drink a drop.

But tapping cash, as opposed to actual water, has never been a problem for Cadiz. “I think there’s plenty of money out there,” Mr. Slater said.

Real profits may be nearly as scarce as snow in the High Sierra, but Wall Street, as it is wont to do, smells profit as California endures its worst drought in decades.

“Investing in the water industry is one of the great opportunities for the coming decades,” said Matthew J. Diserio of Water Asset Management, a New York firm that is a major backer of Cadiz. “Water is the scarce resource that will define the 21st century, much like plentiful oil defined the last century.”

So far, though, this veritable Gold Rush has mostly turned up fool’s gold.

Over the last decade, Cadiz has accrued $185 million in losses, and revenue from the lemon groves and vineyards it owns in the Mojave has added up to only a trickle: $7.1 million total since 2005.

To develop the project, the company burns through $10 million to $20 million annually, paying for a never-ending battle in courthouses and conference rooms across California to win make-or-break government permits and to cover the salaries of its 10 full-time employees.

Cadiz has generated that money by borrowing and regularly issuing more shares, prompting skeptics to wonder if it will ever actually deliver any water, much less any profits.

“It’s a tough game,” said John Dickerson, chief executive of Summit Global Management, a 20-year-old San Diego firm that invests in water infrastructure companies, local water suppliers and water rights, both in the United States and overseas.

Read more via The New York Times
Investors Are Mining for Water, the Next Hot Commodity