The Yuma Desalting Plant is located along the state line between Arizona and California on the sandy banks of the Colorado River. One of the first things you’ll notice at the plant is the loud hum of the water filtering equipment.
Charles McCaughey has been a mechanical engineer at the plant for nine years. He’s standing at the front entrance of the building near a canal where you can see the river on the other side of a chain link fence.
“The water flows from the canal which is on the other side of the levy right here and that’s the Colorado River levy, and from here its pumped from these pumps right her up to the very large vessels on the hill and they hold over four-million gallons of water and that’s where we do our softening,” says McCaughey.
It’s a 60-acre industrial landscape in the middle of the desert with miles of pipes running in all directions. Many pipes are filled with delicate plastic membranes that remove salt and other impurities from the water through reverse osmosis.
It takes a lot of electricity to run the filtration system and that’s what drives up the costs. Construction on the plant was completed 20 years ago. It had a final price tag of 250-million dollars and despite the big investment. The plant has only operated twice since it was finished in the early 1990’s. But, if the plant had to operate right now, the technology would have to be updated for a cost of more than 20-million dollars.
It was recently tested two years ago for a year of operation and created about 30-thosand acre feet of water that wouldn’t otherwise have been in the system,” says Amy Castle.
Castle is assistant water secretary with the U.S. Department of Interior. She defends the plant even though it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and hasn’t seen a lot of action. She says the U.S. is also obligated to keep the plant ready to operate under a 70-year-old water treaty with Mexico. When the river can’t fill a Mexican wetland near the Sea of Cortez, then the U.S. must send water south of the border.
And, Castle says the Yuma Desalting Plant is beneficial to water users in Arizona too. By sending the treated salt-free water to Mexico. The Bureau of Reclamation is able to store more water in Lakes Powell and Mead in northern Arizona, which are now both only half full.
“It’s one of the arrows in our quiver in dealing with this drought situation,” she says.
Castle says the plant is one option. She says stepped up conservation efforts and additional water storage also may go into effect if the area doesn’t receive a lot of rain and snow soon.
Elston Grubaugh is General Manager of the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District near Yuma. The farm-rich area supplies all of the groundwater that the plant uses. The water has high salt content because of the type of soil here and salinity is a natural byproduct of irrigating lettuce and other crops harvested in this valley. Grubaugh says right now there’s enough water to supplement Mexico.
“If the drought continues then we could be in trouble. That’s not going to be a good situation and that’s something we hope to avoid,” says Grubaugh.
Arizona has asked the federal government to process more water at the plant. Tom Buschatzke is with the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
“There’s no silver bullet,” says Buschatzke. “There’s no one solution. We are going to have to cobble together a lot of small things. Maybe like the Yuma Desalting Plant, along with other things to make the system more sustainable and resilient.”
Buschatzke says Mexico recently agreed to accept lower water deliveries from the Colorado River if the severe drought continues. But, he says when the region receives a lot of rain and snow, Mexico will be allowed to take more water from the U.S. whether it comes from the desalting plant or not.