U.S. Water News Online
TIJUANA -- Water has been in the news in recent days, as
Baja California rainfall levels dip to their lowest in more than a
decade and the city's Rodriguez Dam sits less than a quarter full.
But the drought just underscores a far larger challenge: how to
meet the rising water demands of Tijuana, the state's largest city,
in the next few years.
A binational aqueduct built in conjunction with San Diego County
could be the solution, but Baja California officials fear that even
if the controversial $1.9 billion project is eventually approved, the
pipeline can't be built in time to deflect Tijuana's approaching
"It's a situation that has to be decided in the next five to seven
months," said Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther.
Though San Diego can meet its water needs through 2015, Tijuana's
supply can meet demand only through 2005. Even if a binational
agreement is reached this year, the aqueduct probably couldn't be
built and ready to operate until 2010.
Baja California's water commission has taken a number of steps to
avert shortages through 2007-2008. But Mexico needs to act quickly to
guarantee future supplies.
"The drought just reflects how urgent it is for us to find a
solution before too much time passes," said Roberto Espinosa, who
heads the Tijuana office of the International Boundary and Water
Tijuana and San Diego share an arid region, and both cities' water
supplies are fed primarily by piped-in Colorado River water. Both are
looking to agricultural regions to the east for their future water
Although the aqueduct wouldn't give Mexico more Colorado River
water, it would allow Baja California to shift some of its allotment
from the rural Mexicali Valley to the fast-growing urban corridor of
Tijuana-Tecate-Rosarito Beach. San Diego also needs a pipeline, to
bring in 200,000 acre-feet a year of Colorado River water it is
negotiating to buy from Imperial Valley farmers.
Two years ago, the San Diego County Water Authority began working
with Mexico to study the possibility of a binational aqueduct, one of
several alternatives being considered to meet the county's future
"We realized, 'Hey, Mexico's got the same issues -- urban growth
on the coast -- and they need to bring water from the Colorado River
to be able to help meet that growth,'" said Richard Pyle, engineer
for the San Diego County Water Authority and manager of the study.
The $3 million study, completed in April, shows 10 general routes
the pipeline might follow. Some are primarily south of the border,
others north of the border, with others straddling both sides. In
addition, there is a private proposal that suggests building the
aqueduct on an existing gas pipeline right-of-way owned by Sempra
The aqueduct would stretch for about 100 miles and the cost would
be split on the basis of shared capacity, three-fifths for the United
States, two-fifths for Mexico.
Depending on which route is selected, San Diego could save as much
as $200 million by sharing the pipeline with Mexico rather than
building it alone, Pyle said.
"It's a big project no matter what, and the binational aspect
makes it pretty unique," Pyle said. If built, it would be the first
binational aqueduct on the U.S. border.
Though the project is technically feasible, it faces a tangle of
political, environmental and financial obstacles on the U.S. side of
The Imperial Valley-to-San Diego water transfer must be resolved
by a host of interests, including Congress, the state Legislature and
several water agencies in southern California.
Another question is the route. The San Diego County Water
Authority doesn't have a preferred route, but Mexican water officials
want the pipeline to pass primarily south of the border. They point
out that Mexico's less cumbersome review process would allow the
pipeline to be built faster.
Supporters of the project include San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy, who
during a 2001 visit to Tijuana said, "I'll do everything I can to
make it happen."
But opponents argue that the project is impractical and expensive.
"It makes no sense to build a major facility to serve San Diego
through northern Mexico," said Gary Arant, general manager of the
Valley Center Municipal Water District. "It raises serious
logistical, operational and security issues."
Valley Center, along with six other North County water agencies
represented on the San Diego County Water Authority, commissioned a
$38,000 survey of San Diego voters' attitudes toward the project. The
results, released this month, showed most oppose the idea, though few
knew what the project is and only 3 percent said they were "very
familiar" with it.
More than half of those surveyed -- 54 percent -- said they don't
believe the Mexican government can be relied upon, the survey said.
For Baja California, "the problem is timing," said Leonel
Vizcarra, the state's top state water official.
Baja California is buying time by expanding the capacity of the
state's existing aqueduct, rehabilitating wells and installing an
emergency connection at Otay Mesa to bring in more of Mexico's
Colorado River water allotment through an existing U.S. pipeline.
Vizcarra said the state may be able to find ways to stretch Baja
California's water supply through 2010, perhaps by expanding the Otay
Mesa emergency connection or studying desalination.
But if the binational aqueduct proposal fails, Elorduy said,
Mexico must press forward quickly and find an alternative solution.
Given the Tijuana region's looming water crisis, he said there is no
other choice. "We cannot wait for years," he said.
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