2 not-so-smart things Arizona has done in the name of water

Arizona Republic
April 18, 2018

Gov. Doug Ducey proclaimed in 2016: “If there’s one thing Arizona is best in the nation at, it’s water.”

The governor has good reason to boast about his state’s surprisingly robust record in innovative water policy. Yet the state has stumbled in proposing seawater desalination as a way to obtain additional potable water and failed by allowing our rivers to suffer horrible degradation.

Desalination is no magic bullet

Plans to import new sources of water face practical, financial and environmental challenges. In a 2012 study, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation concluded that trans-basin diversions and interstate canals fail basic cost-benefit analysis. But it found two water management tools viable and relatively inexpensive: conservation and reuse.

Yet water managers in Arizona have endorsed the idea that a seawater desalination plant on the Pacific Coast or the Sea of Cortez could be a component of Arizona’s future supplies.

Let’s unpack this option.

California has its own set of water supply challenges, making it highly unlikely that California would allow Arizona to use its coastline to produce water for Arizona’s consumption. Mexico as a location is strikingly perplexing coming from a state that, in the 1930s, supported the building of an “All-American Canal” precisely to keep Mexico’s hands off “our” Colorado River water.

How would we get that water here?

Assuming that California or Mexico would go along, how would the water get to Arizona users? There is a partial answer: a water exchange. California or Mexico would use the potable water generated at the desalination facility, and Arizona would take part of California’s or Mexico’s Colorado River water delivered through the CAP.

Three problems remain:

  • First, Mexico does not need water anywhere near the Sea of Cortez. Mexico uses its Colorado River allotment in Mexicali, 50 miles upriver. To make this project viable, Arizona would need to build not only the desalination plant but also a power plant, a canal and pumping stations to move the water uphill to Mexicali.
  • Second, the CAP canal may need a very expensive retrofit to expand its capacity.
  • Third, I seriously doubt that Arizonans would be willing to pay for either of these multibillion-dollar projects.

Even though water is the state’s lifeblood, Arizonans are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to water. We think that the role of the federal government is to finance water projects and then leave us alone because we are, after all, independent Westerners. A multibillion-dollar desalination option doesn’t make sense when conservation and reuse are less costly options.

Arizona has done little to protect its rivers

By Gov. Ducey’s standard, Arizona has failed to protect its environment. Free-flowing rivers are one of Arizona’s most alluring attractions but, as Arizona has grown, its rivers have dwindled.

The Gila River and its tributaries were once perennial streams that carried large volumes of water across Arizona to the Colorado River in Yuma.

Not anymore.

Surface water diversions and groundwater pumping for irrigation and municipal uses have dried up these rivers once they reach Phoenix. Across the state, other rivers, such as the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona, have suffered the same fate or are at risk.

Desert rivers are extraordinarily rare. Their riparian habitats support cottonwood and willow galleries, nurture wildlife and provide nesting sites for birds from across North America.

While other Western states have acted aggressively to protect existing flows and find creative ways to replenish diminished flows, Arizona has done precious little – until fairly recently.

Restoration projects show great promise

In 1996, Tucson Water and Pima County collaborated to create Sweetwater Wetlands Park on the Santa Cruz River. Reclaimed wastewater filters through recharge basins, creating wildlife habitat as it recharges the aquifer.

Since the 1970s, effluent from Pima County’s treatment plants has created riparian habitat in the Santa Cruz River north of Tucson. After a $600 million upgrade to the plants in 2013, water quality improved so much that fish surveys confirmed the presence of the Gila topminnow, an endangered species that hadn’t been seen in the river for more than 70 years.

In Maricopa County, Phoenix spent $120 million to restore riparian habitat along the Salt River between 24th Street and 19th Avenue. At that location, the Audubon Society has documented more than 200 bird species, a tenfold increase in eight years.

Using treated wastewater, the city also restored 700 acres of habitat at its Tres Rios Wetlands project on the west side at 91st Avenue. The crown jewel in the restoration of the Salt River is Tempe Town Lake, which has become a tourist destination with a $1.5 billion economic impact.

These recent successes have rekindled hopes for the Rio Salado Project, which would restore 45 miles of the Salt River from east Mesa to Buckeye. Securing resources for a restoration project of this scale will not be easy, but it would be an incredible achievement.

View this article at: Arizona Republic