Robert Glennon and Brent M. Haddad
The lure of seawater desalination seems irresistible.
All that seawater just waiting to be salted and delivered to your tap. It can be done, but there are three obstacles:
- It’s expensive.
- It’s energy-intensive.
- And this creates a need to get rid of the remaining salt.
Governor Doug Ducey’s State of the State Address in January, followed by the signing into law of Senate Bill 1740 in July, pledges more than $1 billion over three years to bring more water to the ‘Arizona.
The cornerstone is a proposal to desalinate water from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Construction cost estimates for this project range from $3 billion to $4 billion. That’s a lot of money — more than Arizona contributed to fund the Central Arizona project. Yet the estimates grossly underestimate the state’s ultimate responsibilities.
There are other, much less expensive options that would ensure a secure supply.
The Sea of Cortez Plans Just Didn’t Match
On September 30, we completed our service on the Salton Sea Management Program Independent Review Board in California to assess applications to import water into the Salton Sea. Glennon was a member of the panel; Haddad, the principal researcher. The state received 18 bids to import water. The panel ultimately did not approve any of them.
Several bids proposed to build a desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez. The committee also studied the expansion of the binational desalination project that is currently under consideration and that would provide drinking water to Arizona and potentially others. His contribution would be on a remote section of the beach south of Puerto Peñasco, better known to Arizonans as Rocky Point.
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The plant’s energy needs would require the construction of a power plant. Electricity to power the power plant would require the construction of transmission lines from, well, very far away. The project would also require the construction of a tunnel or canal with pumping stations to move desalinated water northwest to the Morelos Dam in Mexico, near Yuma. Mexico would get desalinated water and, in exchange, Arizona would get more water from the Colorado River.
A top-flight water engineering team advised the Salton Sea panel and carried out extensive work on the economy, energy consumption and environmental implications of the submissions, all available online in the Feasibility Report of the panel.
Construction is expensive, not guaranteed
We calculated in the report that building the binational project could cost more than $20 billion in capital costs and up to $500 million in annual costs, which would be split in an unknown configuration between Arizona and d other participating parties. Its operation could generate 300,000 tons of CO₂ per year. It probably wouldn’t be operational until the 2040s, assuming there were no permits or other delays.
Once the plant started operating, the difficult task of removing the salty brine began. The northern Sea of Cortez contains habitats protected by Mexican law and endangered species, the most iconic being the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
It is by no means certain that Mexican regulators would grant the numerous permits necessary for the project. More certain is the likelihood that environmental groups based in the United States and Mexico will challenge and expand the permitting process.
Readers may be wondering, what does this mean for Mexico? We asked ourselves the same question and concluded: not much.
The project would simply offset the water from the Colorado River that Mexico already receives. This could be expanded to provide additional water to the nation, but this would exacerbate costs and environmental challenges. Mexican workers would be paid to build the project and then to operate it.
Is it sufficient? We have serious doubts about Mexico’s adherence to the proposal.
It would be a pay-first, profit-then infrastructure project. Are the people of Arizona ready to foot the bill for a multi-billion dollar project that may never deliver a drop of water?
Here are 4 cheaper and more secure options
There are other cheaper and safer options.
The alternatives start with conservation and reuse, which remain powerful options and low-hanging fruits. We should not pursue a mirage when we can make better use of the water we already have.
A third option is to use price signals to encourage water conservation. Today, Arizonans enjoy unlimited water from their taps for less than they pay for cable TV or cell phone service. We need a tariff system that provides service to those who are financially strapped, with a robust set of escalating block tariffs for everyone else.
A fourth option, using market forces and incentives to reallocate water, is essential if Arizona is to have a bright water future.
Farmers use about 80% of the state’s water. A 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture found that Arizona farmers use flood irrigation on more than 837,000 acres, compared to using sprinklers, drip drip or micro-irrigation on approximately 233,000 acres.
Abandoning flood irrigation is critical but costly. Therefore, the State of Arizona should bear the costs. This way, Arizona farmers can continue to grow the same amount of produce but with a little less water. The water saved can go to municipal and industrial users.
These options offer a much better way for Arizona to proceed than with a dream of desalinating the ocean in a project that will cost tens of billions of dollars and may never be built.
Robert Glennon is Regents Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona School of Law and author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.” Brent M. Haddad, Ph.D., is a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz and author of “Rivers of Gold: Designing Markets to Allocate Water in California.”
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