There Are Better Options To Solve Our Water Issues Than An Old Desalting Plant

The Yuma Desalting Plant sits dormant in the southwestern corner of Arizona, embodying both the promise of new water and the peril of environmental Armageddon.

As the southwest gets hotter and drier we will face even harder and more urgent decisions about how to improve the reliability of our water supply. Extended drought and water use that exceeds supply has led to half-empty reservoirs on the Colorado River, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency in charge of water in the West, warns of impending water shortages.

News reports have resurfaced an old debate around the Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP), identifying it as an option to augment water supply for the Colorado River. But operating the plant would come at a tremendous cost—restarting the desalter would decimate a globally important bird area, the Ciénega de Santa Clara, by significantly decreasing the amount, and quality, of the water that sustains it.

The Ciénega is the largest remaining wetland in the now-desiccated Colorado River Delta. It is home to the world’s largest remaining population of the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail (an endangered marsh bird), and hundreds of thousands of shorebirds. The areas is protected by Mexico as a Biosphere Reserve (akin to a national park in the United States). In fact, the Ciénega is a small remnant of the vast wetlands which once occupied the region, and as an oasis for wildlife it boasts the highest abundance and diversity of birds in the delta. The Ciénega was even listed in the original Ramsar Convention list of globally important wetlands, indicating international interest in its health. While many water managers now acknowledge the Ciénega’s value, pressure is sure to mount once a Lower Colorado River water shortage is declared.

The Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP) is old technology and it will take tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to repair, and tens of millions more to operate. Other problems include pipes that leak, high consumption of dangerous chemicals, safety hazards implicit in its location in an earthquake zone, as well as the deadly threat to the Ciénega and its birds. With this renewed interest in the desalting plant comes the question of whether Colorado River water managers are poised to renew already-fought battles with the conservation community. The last time serious consideration was given to operating the YDP, Audubon joined 24 other conservation groups to protest impacts at the Ciénega, and the YDP remained quiet.

Audubon understands that reliable water supplies for people are key to adequate water supplies for nature. We have been hard at work, looking for ways to increase Colorado River water security that leave the Ciénega intact. Working with federal and state agency partners, we have defined a number of alternatives. These multi-stakeholder efforts have led us to support the following projects and programs:

Colorado River System Conservation. As far back as 2005, water managers were talking about market transactions as an alternative to YDP operation. The following year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ran a pilot program to purchase water from willing sellers, and today runs a larger program basin-wide. This “system conservation” boosts reservoir elevations on the Colorado River for far less cost than operating the YDP, and doesn’t harm birds or their habitats.

Improved management of Yuma area groundwater. Every year, more than a quarter-million acre-feet (more than 80 billion gallons) of groundwater are pumped from the Yuma area so the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can send it to Mexico as part of treaty-required water deliveries. In recent years, Reclamation has not been able to use all the groundwater for this purpose because of water quality challenges. Not all Yuma groundwater is problematic, and Reclamation could implement a simple fix by separating good quality water from bad. The project here is relatively modest, amounting to two new concrete-lined canals to re-plumb drainage for groundwater pumps already in operation.

Agreement with Mexico. The United States and Mexico recently renewed collaborative commitments on the Colorado River with the adoption of Minute 323 in September 2017. That agreement creates multiple benefits for water users in both countries, reducing shortage risks, increasing water conservation, and even allowing Audubon and our partners in Raise the River to work in partnership with the governments of the United States and Mexico to restore freshwater-dependent habitat in the Colorado River Delta.  U.S. water users have a lot at stake in Minute 323, and a unilateral decision to harm the Ciénega via operation of the YDP puts those benefits at risk. A new agreement with Mexico could generate water as an alternative to YDP operation while creating permanent, bilateral protection for the Ciénega.

The challenge of water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin is real and growing. The good news is that water managers now understand the Colorado has a limited water supply, and conservation strategies are required in order to establish long-term water stability. The region’s investment in improved water management and conservation has only just begun. There are many ways to generate water without killing off the vital wetlands that allow birds to live in our midst.