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Wetland vies for Colorado River’s water

Conservation land in Mexico and a desalting plant in Arizona are at the center of a debate over the river.

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Throughout this period, the diverted farm water has not counted toward Mexico’s treaty-specified allotment of Colorado River water, explains Lorrie Gray-Lee, who heads the Bureau of Reclamation office responsible for the agency’s activities along the last 700 miles of the Colorado River. So the US has made up the difference by releasing additional water from Lake Mead to meet its treaty obligations.

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But a prolonged drought has triggered a clamor on the US side of the border for that additional release. Water managers say operating the desalting plant is their ticket to getting that water. “The difficulty we have is that operating the plant requires a lot of money. It’s about as expensive as taking bottles of Evian and pouring them into the river,” Ms. Gray-Lee says.

A plan to save wetland, supply water for US
Four years ago, as pressure to restart the plant was building, a group of Arizona water managers, as well as environmentalists, farmers, and scientists, quietly hammered out a set of principles and options for meeting water needs north of the border while saving the Cienega de Santa Clara. It included the establishment of a monitoring program in the Cienega – a project the University of Arizona’s Flessa is designing with Mexican colleagues. It backed the notion of running the plant on a pilot basis for 90 days. It explored, too, the idea of using excess groundwater in the Yuma area to help meet US treaty obligations to Mexico.

Since then, however, water-management districts in southern California and Nevada have offered to help pay the cost of running the plant on a pilot basis – in exchange for water. And Arizona has insisted that by law, its water cannot be used outside of Arizona.

That leaves the desalting plant the main option left standing – at least for now. The Bureau of Reclamation’s goal is to run it for 365 days during an 18-month period to make sure the plant can function and to get a better sense of its annual operating costs. The project would still need to go through an additional permitting process, including environmental impact assessments, before it could operate around the clock.

But to many environmentalists, the inertia of Western water politics is likely to cement the plant – once it is operating – as the lead option for freeing up Lake Mead water now bound for Mexico.

Plenty of alternatives exist, they argue, though some of them need further evaluation. Mexico itself is looking for potential sources of farm wastewater that could help maintain the flow into the Cienega. In addition, runoff from farms in the San Luis and Mexicali Valleys could be tapped. If the desalting plant does eventually run full time, its saline effluent could be pumped to the Cienega’s southernmost reaches, where evaporation already has left the water on what essentially are salt flats suitable for little more than brine shrimp.

“Turning to desalination in some cases may be appropriate” as the Southwest deals with rising populations and a drier future, acknowledges Jennifer Pitt, who heads the Environmental Defense Fund’s conservation efforts along the Colorado River.

But before such energy-intensive approaches are switched on, she says, far more needs to be done to reduce water demand in cities, irrigate crops more efficiently, and establish laws that allow greater flexibility and recognize ecosystems as among a river’s legitimate users.