Fifty miles south of the U.S. border, on the edge of a city on the Gulf of California, a few acres of dusty bushes could shape Arizona’s future.
As the state’s two main water resources, groundwater and the Colorado River, dwindle due to drought, climate change and overuse, officials are considering a hydrologic Hail Mary: building a plant in Mexico to suck salt from seawater and then pump that water through. pump hundreds of miles, mostly uphill, to Phoenix.
In Arizona, the idea of building a desalination plant in Mexico has been debated for years. But now a $5 billion project proposed by an Israeli company is under serious consideration, an indication of how concerns about water shortages are upsetting policymakers in Arizona and across the American West.
On June 1, the state announced that the Phoenix area, the fastest growing region in the country, does not have enough groundwater to support all the future housing that has already been approved. Cities and developers who want to build more projects than what is already allowed would have to find new water sources.
State officials are considering whether to set aside an initial $750 million for the cost of the desalination project, though Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has yet to approve it.
“Desalination in Mexico is a very likely outcome for Arizona,” said Chuck Podolak, the state official responsible for finding new water resources. Last year, lawmakers agreed to give his agency, the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona, $1 billion for that mission. He said that whatever water project is built, “it will seem crazy and ambitious until it is completed. And that is our history in Arizona.”
Desalination plants are already common in coastal states like California, Texas and Florida, and in more than 100 other countries. Israel gets more than 60 percent of its drinking water from the Mediterranean Sea.
The Arizona project would be unusual because of its distance and the fact that the state is landlocked. The water would have to travel some 200 miles, climbing more than 600 feet along the way to reach Phoenix.
“We live in a gravity-driven world,” said Meagan Mauter, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and an expert on desalination. “Once you have to move water, you have huge fixed costs.”
The plant would allow Arizona to continue to grow, but at a high cost.
It would flood the northern Gulf of California with waste salt and threaten one of Mexico’s most productive fisheries. It would cut a highway-sized corridor through a U.S. National Monument and UNESCO site established to protect a fragile desert ecosystem. And the water it provided would cost about ten times more than water from the Colorado River.
In a sense, Arizona has been here before. The state owes its boom to water projects on a superhuman scale, culminating in the 336-mile-long, $4 billion aqueduct that diverts water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. IDE Technologies, the Israeli company behind the new desalination proposal, has capitalized on that legacy, calling its project “an infinite and unlimited inverted Colorado.”
That message has found an audience. Even before the announcement of a groundwater shortage, representatives from Phoenix and half a dozen surrounding cities met with the company to learn more about the project, according to IDE.
Environmentalists argue that instead of importing water from another country, the state should protect its limited supplies by having fewer lawns, fewer swimming pools, and perhaps fewer homes.
“What Arizona really needs to do is implement stronger water conservation,” said Miché Lozano, who until recently was an Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The pipeline is just such a big, dumb idea.”
A nightmare version of Arizona’s future
Arizona’s proposed source of rescue is Puerto Peñasco, a 60,000-per-hour city south of the border. Seen from the ocean, the city is a ribbon of luxury villas and high-rise condominiums, fronted by soft beaches that unfold into turquoise waters. Phoenix tourists, who make up the bulk of visitors, call it by its anglicized name, Rocky Point; its unofficial name is Arizona Beach.
But behind the glamor lies a city of dirt roads and low cinder block buildings, covered in dust and sand brought in from the surrounding desert. One third of the population lives in poverty. Other problems: Puerto Peñasco cannot provide its own residents with sufficient drinking water.
The city is a nightmare version of Arizona’s own future. Lacking surface water, it depends on underground aquifers, the supply of which has decreased as the population has grown. When tourism swells in the summer, the water pressure in the pipes drops; residents must rely on what they have managed to store in cisterns.
The Israeli company has said it would provide Puerto Peñasco with some drinking water as part of its proposal, but not how much or at what cost. The head of the local water supplier, Héctor Acosta Félix, said some sort of desalination project is vital for the future of Puerto Peñasco.
But part of the plan poses a challenge: what to do with waste.
Desalination works by sucking up massive amounts of ocean water and then pushing it through a series of membranes at high pressure to filter out the salt. Every 100 liters of seawater produces about 50 liters of drinking water and another 50 liters of brine with a salinity about twice that of seawater.
IDE would dump that brine into the sea. On the open ocean, waste brine can spread quickly. But because Puerto Peñasco is near the tip of the Gulf of California, effectively a long and shallow bay, the effects could be concentrated.
That could harm the plankton that form the basis of the food chain, said Nélida Barajas Acosta, head of an environmental group called CEDO Intercultural. More than half of Mexico’s fisheries are harvested from the Gulf of California.
“The impact on fisheries will be dramatic,” said Ms Acosta. “The water goes to the US, but the environmental impact stays in Mexico.”
IDE, one of the world’s largest desalination companies, declined to comment on this story. But at public meetings with Arizona officials in December, company representatives dismissed the concerns.
The company asked Arizona to sign a 100-year contract to buy water from the desalination project. In return, IDE says it would find private funding to cover the estimated $5 billion initial cost to build the desalination plant and pipeline. The company has partnered with Goldman Sachs to arrange that financing. Goldman Sachs did not respond to a request for comment.
Erez Hoter-Ishay, IDE’s project manager, said that brine discharge would not harm ocean life, and suggested it might even be beneficial. “We see in other desalination facilities that life is thriving next to it,” he told lawmakers.
It is unclear whether Mexican officials would support the plan. The governor of Sonora, Alfonso Durazo, said he was against it. But the national government has jurisdiction over water in Mexico, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was quoted in January as saying he was open to the idea.
Mr. Durazo’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. López Obrador’s office referred questions to the National Water Commission, which did not answer.
Straight through a biosphere reserve
Getting Mexican approval may not be the biggest hurdle.
Between Puerto Peñasco and Phoenix is one of the most environmentally sensitive places in Arizona: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a riot of velvet mesquite, teddy bear cholla, and red-flowered ocotillo teeming with roadrunners and rattlesnakes and giant-eared jackrabbits, spanning 500 square miles on the southern edge of the state like a crowded psychedelic fever dream.
UNESCO has declared the monument, along with a national park on the Mexican side of the border, a Biosphere Reserve – a distinction bestowed almost nowhere else in the Southwestern United States. The pipeline would cut right through it.
And not just the pipeline. Desalination plants require an enormous amount of energy. To power the plant, IDE would build one of America’s largest solar farms near Phoenix, plus a transmission line to move that power to Mexico. That line would need a 500-foot-wide right-of-way corridor, a project consultant told officials in December. The water main would require a 175 foot corridor.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is reviewing an application from IDE to build those lines through the park.
“We bypass the wilderness areas,” said Mr. Hoter-Ishay to lawmakers. He didn’t explain what that meant or how it would be achieved.
In addition to its ecological value, the land has spiritual significance to the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose people lived there for thousands of years before being moved to a reservation east of the park.
On a recent morning, Lorraine Eiler, a tribal representative, was wandering through part of the park where her ancestors had lived. Endangered mud turtles and pupfish floated through a spring-fed pond; the branches of wolfberry bushes hung with orange-red fruit the size of jelly beans. Saguaro cacti rose above their heads, their stubby arms thrusting up like terrified giants.
Ms. Eiler said the O’odham believe each saguaro embodies a human spirit. Countless saguaros would have to be ripped out for the pipeline. “When you knock one down, it’s like knocking yourself down,” she said.
She was joined by the saguaros by Mr. Lozano, who was blunt.
“A private foreign company building a bi-national pipeline through two UNESCO Biosphere Reserves with endangered species everywhere just doesn’t seem like a good idea,” Lozano said. “That’s just me.”
‘Crazy and ambitious’
Ninety miles north of Organ Pipe, construction was being prepared in Buckeye, a suburb of Phoenix. Since 2010, the city’s population has doubled to over 100,000; officials say it could eventually reach one million.
Those residents need water — and Buckeye’s options are dwindling. In January, the Arizona water department said there wasn’t enough groundwater under Buckeye to support new homes beyond construction that has already been approved.
IDE’s pipeline, which would run past the city, is essentially an offering to keep places like Buckeye viable. Terry Lowe, the city’s director of water resources, said the cost of that water was probably too high for now. But as Buckeye continues to grow, he expects that could change.
“The deal with water in Arizona is not how much water there is,” Mr. Lowe said. “It’s about how much we’re willing to pay for it.”
Arizona is Buckeye written big. Since the start of the mega-drought in 2000, Arizona’s population has increased by nearly 50 percent, and there’s no sign of stopping.
To date, IDE’s proposal is the only formal offer submitted to the government agency seeking to secure more water. While no decision has yet been made and Mr Podolak says he wants other proposals, he said there will likely be a version of the plan eventually.
In the sprawling metropolis outside his office, the houses continued to rise.
Steve Fisher contributed reporting from Mexico City.