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Old Facilities, Older Rivers,

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Image supplied by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Legislation Pending At The State Capitol Supports Bringing The Yuma Desalting Project Back Online, But The Federal Government Says That’s Not The Answer

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By Chris Braswell
Modern Times Magazine


Feb. 17, 2014 — In the high deserts of Arizona and throughout the Southwestern United States, access to water resources seems far closer to mind at a policy level than any wetter or non-landlocked states.

The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in December 2012 predicts a future imbalance between the supply and demand for Colorado River water, which, by way of the Central Arizona Project, is where most Arizonans get their water.

The Yuma Desalting Plant is in the southwest corner of Arizona, which today approximates the southernmost extent of the Colorado River flow. The Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act of 1974 provided for the YDP’s construction in order to treat saline agricultural return flows from the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District in the Yuma area.

During the implementation of the project, a separate canal or “bypass string” was built that takes the salty groundwater and delivers it to the Cienaga Santa Clara wetlands, where it serves as a recharge catalyst for the ecological water mixture in the area.

Since the YPD was built, water has been delivered to Mexico from the Colorado River instead of treated flow delivery from the YPD, but that still satisfies the U.S. obligation to the saline-mitigated flow to Mexico, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region. Meanwhile, the bypass string has been used over the years to continue feeding the growing Cienaga Santa Clara ecosystem.

Proposed during the current second session of the 51st Arizona Legislature, Senate Concurrent Memorial 1001 spearheaded by Arizona Senator Gail Griffin, district 14, urges the U.S. Department of the Interior to “immediately take all necessary measures to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant.”

The legislation criticizes the DOI for using 100,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mead to fulfill the treaty's water quality obligations to Mexico rather than conserving an equivalent amount of water through the operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant, and it also notes an ongoing 14-year drought that has led to DOI projections of a shortage of Colorado River water to exceed 50 percent in 2017.

“By abdicating its obligation to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant, the federal government has caused the loss of more than 1,300,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead, placing the state of Arizona at increased risk of water shortage,” according to SCM 1001. “If the federal government were to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant, it would conserve 100,000 acre-feet per year, equivalent to the water needed to supply more than 250,000 Arizona residents with water annually.”

The USBR holds a different view about the wisdom of bringing YDP back into full operation.

When the complex was built in the 1980s, “it was a low-water period so it made some sense, and we were flushed with the government money at the time,” Davis said.

In 1992, the region went into surplus flooding conditions, and the YDP was put into maintenance mode by the USBR. In 2007, the USBR did a 90-day demo run of the facility at one-tenth capacity, to see if it was still being maintained correctly.

“It was still working OK, but we did not really have a call from any of the water stakeholders, the water customers, to use it on a consistent basis,” Davis said.

In 2010, as the current drought continued, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Project asked the USBR to go ahead with another demo run. Other organizations involved with these recent demonstration and pilot tests at the YDP include University of Arizona Department of Geosciences, as well as some Mexican partners such as  the non-governmental agency Podnatura, and the state agency which is responsible for the biosphere preserve status that exists in the northern half of the Gulf of California.

“(In 2010) we looked at the expenditures needed for operations, the chemicals involved, updating the designs, the solid contact reactor, the reverse osmosis pumps, the membranes, the high pressure piping, media filtration, and the instrumentation required to bring the electronic operations up,” Davis said. “The initial investment at running it at one-third capacity, would be over $23 million to fix it up. And if you wanted to operate it at two-thirds capacity, that would be another $20 million per year. At one-third capacity you would get 31,361 acre feet, so I don't want to say it is a “drop in the bucket,” but that is not a lot of water.

Today, that kind of money is not available in the USBR's budget.

“What would we have to sacrifice to take out $30 million, out of all of our programs, our conservation programs, our safety of dams programs, our upgrades to our electronic systems and security? The money definitely is an issue,” Davis said. “This would be a huge investment. But if things got really worse and worse, then there might be great minds that come together to say, how do we fund bringing it up to this century's standards, and make it work.”

There are a couple of plants in California that the USBR has helped get off the ground with some funding through our Water Smart Program, and the technology has improved greatly since the 1980s and the time of the YDP’s construction, Davis said.

Bringing the YDP online would also affect the saline water from its bypass stream that currently goes to the Cienaga Santa Clara, according to the USBR. Before the YDP bypass flows began, the Cienaga Santa Clara was “about 10,000 acres or less of pretty poor-quality tidal infill,” said Tom McCann, assistant general manager of operations, planning, and engineering for the Central Arizona Project. “Now it’s about 40,000 acres, of which about 14,000 is dense, marshy vegetation areas. The remaining acreage is open-water habitat.”

Each year, 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River go into Mexico, McCann said, which satisfies the U.S. treaty obligations. The water crosses the Southwestern border in two places, at its “Northerly International Boundary” near the Morales Dam immediately west of Yuma (at a rate of about 1.35 million acre-feet per year), and at the “Southern International Boundary” near the border at San Luis. The SIB is a far more limited amount of flow of about 150,000 to 160,000 acre-feet per year.

None of the NIB flow continues downstream since it is entirely redirected by Mexico, primarily to irrigated farmland in the Mexicali Valley Irrigation District in Baja State. About 1 or 2 percent of the NIB flow goes to Tijuana by pipeline. The SIB flow goes to San Luis, Sonora.

Weather Patterns
“People may realize that it is a finite resource, you know we have studies out there that are looking out 50 years and looking back 1,200 years, and recognizing the cycles of water. But now we are adding in climate change effects,” Davis said.

Ken Waters, Phoenix-based warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, consented that the desert Southwest has been under drought conditions for 14 to 15 years, but that the Yuma area itself only typically gets rain about two or three times per year anyway. Rain is rare in greater Yuma, southern Arizona and northern Sonora, and when it does come, it comes fast, resulting in far more groundwater runoff than basin recharge. The seasonal monsoon precipitation phenomenon in the region is sporadic and does not go as far north into Arizona as it used to.

The headwaters of the Colorado River are fed by snowpack in western Colorado, “and that's been at a deficit for a number of years,” Waters said. “Lake Powell and Lake Mead are also going down again. Las Vegas is very concerned because the Lake Mead levels are going down. It all goes downhill, so to speak, and it's going to eventually get down to Yuma. In the next couple of years, we don't see it turning around.”

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