Amid Drought, Arizona Contemplates Piping In Water From Mexico

Courtesy of The Washington Post, a look at how Arizona – amidst drought – is considering piping in water from Mexico:

Arizona’s newly expanded water finance board had met only three times. The state authority had no director. Nor had it made a public call for water projects to boost Arizona’s dwindling water supplies from the Colorado River. 

But earlier this week the board was suddenly facing a vote on whether to support a $5 billion project led by an Israeli company to build a plant to desalinate ocean water in Mexico and pump it 200 miles across the border — and through a national monument — to ease the state’s water crisis. Arizona and Mexico have been talking for years about removing salt from water in the Sea of Cortez, but this plan was new to many, and the rush for the state’s blessing in the waning days of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration worried some in the state.

“I’m sorry but this reeks of backroom deals,” State Sen. Lisa Otondo (D) told the board during its meeting on Tuesday.

The accelerated debate also reflected the urgency of the water crisis facing the American Southwest. With water levels in key reservoirs approaching dangerously low thresholds — as a historic drought extends into its third decade — many officials want to import water into the Colorado River basin from elsewhere.

“The risk here clearly, in this case, outweighs the rush,” Andy Tobin, a member of the water finance board and a former speaker in the Arizona House of Representatives said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ve got folks who are running out of water.”

IDE Technologies, an Israel-based company that has built desalination plants around the world, claims it can deliver an oasis of up to 1 million acre-feet of water to the drought-parched state — an amount roughly equal to what central and southern Arizona took from the Colorado River this year.

During its presentation to the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona, two representatives from the developer, plus a Goldman Sachs official involved in financing for the project, presented their vision for the largest desalination plant in the world. The representatives said the project would be entirely financed by private money but they want Arizona to pledge to buy the water at an unspecified future price.

“We need a long-term commitment that when we deliver water to you, you will buy it,” said Erez Hoter-Ishay, manager of the Arizona Water Project Solution Team, as the IDE-led consortium is called. “Simple as that.”

On Tuesday, the water finance board voted unanimously approve a nonbinding resolution to continue to study the project.

IDE said the plant would be built near Puerto Peñasco, along the Sea of Cortez in the Mexican state of Sonora. The roughly $5 billion first phase would involve building a plant that sucks in seawater and filters it through membranes to remove the salt.

Then it would be pumped through a 200-mile pipeline north, crossing into the United States at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, an international biosphere reserve, before following a highway toward Maricopa County, where it could join canals that serve Phoenix and Tucson. The first phase, a single pipeline, could carry about 300,000 acre feet of water to Arizona and could be operational by 2027, with future pipes supplying up to 1 million acre-feet, the IDE representatives said. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.

Environmental groups have raised concerns that the plant, which would pump brine back into the Sea of Cortez, could damage marine habitat, and the pipeline could disrupt the sensitive desert in the national monument.

Jennifer Martin, a program manager with the Sierra Club in Arizona, told the board that the state should be focused on conserving water, moving away from water-intensive crops such as alfalfa, and reining in rapid growth, rather than shifting the environmental burden onto Mexico and future generations.

“Sierra Club urges you to put the breaks on this expensive, energy-intensive and environmentally-harmful proposal now and not to rush it through in the waning days of 2022 and the Ducey administration,” she said.

Arizona and Mexico for the past several years have been discussing another possible desalination approach — where Arizona would pay for a plant across the border in exchange for taking a portion of Mexico’s allotment from the Colorado River, said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. The cross-border pipeline plan “is a little bit out of left field.”

Porter said she’s not sure there would be a market for buying such a large quantity of water in Arizona, even with the shortages on the Colorado River.

“We don’t need to run out and find another couple hundred thousand or 500,000 acre feet of water,” she said. “It’s not at all clear that that level of demand will develop.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, some board members said they were surprised to be considering such a major infrastructure project after first hearing about it just a few days earlier. The expanded board was created by legislation earlier this year to administer a $1 billion fund for projects to boost the state’s water supply. State Rep. Reginald Bolding (D), a nonvoting member of the board, questioned how IDE even knew to present its proposal to the board.

“We haven’t hired an executive director or staff. To my knowledge we haven’t put out any calls for proposals,” he said. “How did you know to put in a proposal for this agreement before we even set up the infrastructure of the board?”

Hoter-Ishay said the company has been meeting with officials in Arizona and Mexico for more than three years to develop the project and wants the state’s commitment before starting a federal environmental review.

Earlier this year, Ducey toured an IDE desalination plant during a visit to Israel. State Rep. Russell Bowers, the Republican speaker of Arizona’s House of Representatives, told the water board he’d been aware of the project but had signed a nondisclosure agreement so he couldn’t discuss it.

C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Ducey, said the governor has been outspoken about the state’s water crisis and the urgent need to address it.

“Arizona is facing a water emergency. We are in dire situation,” he said.

Karamargin noted that an IDE desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif., has been supplying drinking water to residents in San Diego County for years and said the green soccer fields during the World Cup in Qatar came from the same technology.

“It’s not only a game-changing amount of water. It’s a game-changing approach,” he said. “It is very good news indeed that a company that has the track record that IDE apparently has is interested in coming here and taking this on.”

The project would need approvals in both the United States and Mexico. The developer submitted a right-of-way application for the water pipeline to the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday, beginning what promises to be a lengthy environmental review process.

IDE’s presentation was vague on the cost of their water. Hoter-Ishay cited some estimates from last year that valued an acre-foot of water at $2,200 to $3,300 but stressed this was “of course subject to engineering.” For 300,000 acre-feet of water, that range could mean up to nearly $1 billion per year.

“No one can value the cost of water,” Hoter-Ishay said. “When you don’t have water, you don’t have growth, you don’t have life.”


This entry was posted on Friday, December 23rd, 2022 at 8:36 pm and is filed under Colorado River, Mexico, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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