U.S. Water News Online
PHOENIX -- A desalination plant on the western edge of Yuma
that was mothballed shortly after it was completed about 15 years ago
will face its first test in early March when the federal government
restarts it for a 90-day, low-power trial run.
Officially, the test will help determine whether the desalination
plant still works, how much operating it full time would cost and how
it would affect the wetland known as the Cienega de Santa Clara, a
critical habitat for migratory birds.
But the test will provide more than just technical data. It also
will bring together water managers and conservation groups for a
grand experiment in the management and the politics of water.
For Arizona water managers, the $280 million desalination plant
represented a way to stretch the Colorado River a little further.
Up and running, the desalination plant could convert billions of
gallons of agriculture wastewater each year into a usable resource,
preserving long-term storage in Lake Mead and protecting Arizona from
For environmental groups, the plant embodied a destructive
"use-it-up" attitude about water and a direct threat to a thriving
wetland 90 miles south in Sonora.
The agriculture wastewater intended for desalination feeds the
wetland, providing habitat for birds and fish, and supports a small
local economy. Without the water, the wetland would dry up.
Not quite three years ago, a water manager and an environmentalist
struck up a conversation. Before long, they were working on a plan
that would ultimately recast the desalination plant as a symbol of
two disparate interests finding common ground.
The desalination plant's original purpose was to help the United
States meet the terms of a water-quality treaty with Mexico. The
treaty came about as a result of protests over the increasing levels
of salt and other nutrients in the Colorado River by the time it
reached the border.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the desalination
plant, decided to divert water drained from farm fields in the nearby
Wellton-Mohawk Valley, remove the salt and send it down the river.
After floods washed away one of the diversion canals in 1992, the
bureau mothballed the plant, just nine months after turning it on. A
series of wet years rendered it unnecessary.
Since then, a group of caretakers has kept the plant in working
condition. A group of scientists also developed a water-treatment
research center using a one-hundredth scale version of the plant.
Jim Cherry, Yuma area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said
researchers increased the plant's efficiency from a 73 percent
recovery rate, when 10 gallons of raw water produced slightly more
than seven gallons of treated water, to about 85 percent.
They also tried desalting local groundwater to see if the plant
could produce drinking water someday for small communities on either
side of the border.
"The plant was authorized to do one thing," Cherry said, "but we
can study whether we could do other things."
It's the one thing that stuck in the minds of Arizona water
managers. When drought struck the river in the early years of this
decade, lowering reservoir storage by half, state officials brought
up the idea of restarting the desalination plant.
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