Amid drought, Arizona will study project that channels water from Mexico
“I’m sorry, but this reeks of backroom dealing,” state Sen. Lisa Otondo (D) told the board during their meeting Tuesday.
The fast-paced 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 former speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We have people who are running out of water.”
IDE Technologies, an Israel-based company that has built desalination plants worldwide, claims it can provide an oasis for up to 1 million acre-feet of water to the state of drought – an amount roughly equal to what central and southern Arizona took from the Colorado River this year.
During their presentation to the Arizona Water Infrastructure Finance Authority, two representatives of the developer, plus a Goldman Sachs official involved in financing the project, presented their vision for the world’s largest desalination plant. The representatives said the project would be financed entirely with private money, but they want Arizona to commit to buying 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 Solutions Team, as the IDE-led consortium is called. “Simple as that.”
On Tuesday, the water finance board unanimously approved a non-binding resolution to continue studying the project.
IDE said the plant would be built near Puerto Peñasco, along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico’s Sonora state. The first phase of roughly $5 billion would involve building a plant that would absorb seawater and filter it through membranes to remove salt.
It would then be pumped through a pipeline 200 miles north, crossing into the United States at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a international biosphere reserve, before following a highway into Maricopa County, where it could join canals serving Phoenix and Tucson. The first phase, a single pipeline, could transport about 300,000 acre-feet of water to Arizona and could be operational by 2027, with future pipelines supplying up to 1 million acre-feet, IDE representatives said. One acre-foot is equal to 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover one acre of land in one foot of water.
Environmental groups have raised concerns that the plant, which would pump brine back into the Sea of Cortez, could harm marine habitat and the pipeline could disturb the sensitive desert at the national monument.
Jennifer Martin, program manager for the Sierra Club in Arizona, told the board that the state should focus on conserving water, moving away from water-intensive crops like alfalfa and controlling rapid growthinstead of transferring the environmental burden to Mexico and future generations.
“Sierra Club urges you to end this costly, energy-intensive and environmentally damaging proposal now and not rush it into the final days of 2022 and the Ducey administration,” he said.
For the past several years, Arizona and Mexico 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 allocation of the Colorado River, said Sarah Porter, director of Kyl from Arizona State University. Water Policy Center. The cross-border pipeline plan “is a bit off the mark.”
Porter said she’s not sure there’s a market to buy such a large amount of water in Arizona, even with shortages in the Colorado River.
“We don’t need to run out and find another two hundred thousand or 500,000 acre-feet of water,” he said. “It’s not entirely 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 days before. The expanded board was created by legislation earlier this year to manage a billion-dollar fund for projects to increase the state’s water supply. State Rep. Reginald Bolding (D), a non-voting member of the board, questioned how IDE even knew how to present its proposal to the board.
“We have not hired an executive or staff director. To the best of my knowledge, we have not put out any call for proposals,” she said. “How did you know to submit a proposal for this deal even before we set up the infrastructure for 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 launching a federal environmental review.
Earlier this year, Ducey visited an IDE desalination plant during a to visit to Israel. State Representative Russell Bowersthe Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives told the water board that he was aware of the project but had signed a confidentiality agreement so he could not discuss it.
CJ 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 a desperate situation,” she said.
Karamargin noted that an IDE desalination plant plant in Carlsbad, California, has been supplying San Diego County residents with drinking water for years and said the green soccer fields during the World Cup in Qatar came of the same technology.
“It’s not just a game-changing amount of water. It’s an innovative approach,” she said. “It’s certainly very good news that a company that has the track record of apparently having IDEs is interested in coming here and taking this on.”
The project would need approvals in both the United States and Mexico. The developer filed a right-of-way application for the water pipeline with the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday, beginning what promises to be a lengthy environmental review process.
IDE’s presentation was vague about the cost of its water. Hoter-Ishay cited some estimates from last year that valued an acre-foot of water between $2,200 and $3,300, but stressed that 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.”