On Tuesday, Arizona passed a state board tasked with vetting proposals to increase water supplies A defiant resolution In support of a potential massive seawater desalination plant in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.
A partnership led by Israeli desalination experts IDE Technologys submitted a multibillion-dollar plan to the Arizona board’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority, saying it could replace or supplement the loss of Colorado River water flowing through the Central Arizona Project’s canals. The plant will remove salt from the seawater and pump it north into the canal, where it will flow through Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties.
It’s the first step toward evaluating a water project that lawmakers have announced this year Each committed more than $1 billion, Heeding Governor Doug Ducey’s call to support desalination and other efforts. Some lawmakers who supported it balked at what they called the rushed nature of the resolution, raised on members only last week. Ducey left office in January.
Board member Andy Tobin, a former House speaker and member of the Corporations Commission, said the bigger risk is acting too slowly. He noted that a development that relies on Scottsdale water could be cut off in January due to the fall of the Colorado.
“We have run out of water,” he said.
IDE representatives said they plan to submit the proposal this week for a federal environmental review and hope to show the state’s support for that process. The project is substantial, potentially moving enough water to supply all current Arizonans, as well as requiring a parallel power line for pumping. The eight-member board unanimously approved the resolution with member Ted Cook, CAP’s retired general manager, amending it to clarify that the state was only committed to “discussing” the plan, not negotiating it.
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The proposal would also require Mexico’s consent. The agency said it has discussed it with the governor of Sonora, who is interested in securing water from it for Hermosillo and Nogales. But most of the water will move into Arizona.
Proponents envision a seawater desalination plant near the resort town of Puerto Peñasco, Sonora. As reverse osmosis membranes separate the salt, fresh water will flow north through a pipeline, entering the United States at Organ Pipe National Monument. From there the pipeline will follow State Route 85 to Arizona’s population center in Maricopa County. It will pass through Buckeye, which will have direct access there, and then into two new reservoirs northwest of the county’s White Tank Mountains Regional Park. It can then enter the Central Arizona Project Canal, which flows toward Phoenix, Pinal County, and Tucson.
The consortium also envisions a smaller pipeline from the end of the CAP canal to Nogales, Mexico, where it would deliver up to 10,000 acre-feet. Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, will receive its share of water directly from the desalination plant. Altogether Sonara will need 40,000 acre-feet. About 326,000 gallons per acre-foot.
IDE representatives told the board the initial plant would cost about $5.5 billion and provide 300,000 acre-feet. That would be enough to supply a million or more Arizona households, but at a cost of more than $2,500 per acre-foot. This would be a significant price increase over CAP deliveries currently in the hundreds of dollars. But, when mixed with other sources, company officials say, it can raise homeowners’ bills by just a few dollars a month.
If Arizona commits to the project, residents in the areas served by it will eventually pay their water bills. The state will not pay for the construction of the plant, but will instead agree to pay for what it produces.
The plant could later be scaled to offer up to 1 million acre-feet, which would represent more than a third of Arizona’s portion of the Colorado River. IDE will finance it privately, but requires a commitment from Arizona to buy the water for 100 years. A final deal would likely require Arizona to pay even when the plant doesn’t need the water, as has been the case with California’s desalination plant.
Environmentalists have raised concerns about the project’s energy requirements, the impact of brine on the ocean and the crossing of unique and sensitive habitats, including organ pipes.
“I think if we’re selling our environmental birthright for a water mess, so to speak, we could be in a big mess,” Yuma Audubon Society Conservation Chair Carrie Meister told the board.
Others said there was no time to waste in finding a new source as the declining Colorado River drained water from the CAP Canal and threatened to empty it in future years. A group representing Pinal County, whose farmers have borne the brunt of those losses so far, called for support for the desalination plan. Pinal Partnership CEO Tony Smith said farms in the county generate more than $1 billion a year and are at risk of running out of groundwater. At 1 million acre-feet, he said, a desalination plant could eventually provide enough water for all the homes in the state, leaving other sources for farms.
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If environmental reviews, permits and financing go as expected, the project could be producing some water by 2027, IDE officials said.
Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said she felt cheated by the fast track of the proposal before the board. He supported the $1.4 billion pledge that lawmakers made earlier this year for water enhancements and conservation by Gov. Gave it to Ducey. That bipartisan effort passed with assurances that the money would not “rubber stamp” any particular project, he said.
“I’m sorry, but this reeks of backroom deals,” he said.
Some public speakers and board members at the meeting said they heard the proposal last week and there should be no rush to pass a resolution supporting it. Doing so for such a large project could send a signal that there would be no room for other proposals, they said, at a time when the board has not formulated its rules, appointed a director or announced a request for proposals.
“Approval of this resolution will scare off competing proposals,” said Carl Flesa, a University of Arizona geoscientist and Colorado River researcher who said he was speaking for himself and not the university.
The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association asked the board to slow down. Its Phoenix-area membership includes 3.7 million members who may pay for water but have unanswered questions about it, said executive director Warren Tenney. “You should wonder why they still have questions.”
Arizona has discussed the idea of a Sea of Cortez plant for years, and in 2020 joined a preliminary feasibility study with partners from Mexico, California and Nevada that put per-acre-foot prices at $2,000 or more. The idea, however, would not include a pipeline north of Arizona, but would rely on an exchange of Colorado River water with Mexico.
Some legislators have warned of potential costs to water ratepayers if Arizona agrees to lock in a plant. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said he sees no reason to rush it, while the board could take time to review the resolution in the coming months. “Why the urgent need now, today, for this to happen?” she said.
But retired CAP board member Mark Lewis urged the board to act now. The resolution does not commit to state funding, only a commitment to analysis and discussion. Whatever the state does to increase its water supply will be expensive, Lewis said.
“You have to have a sustainable, 100-year water supply for the state of Arizona,” he said, “and it takes a sustainable supply of money to do that.”