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Could desalination play a role in the future of the Colorado River?

As Colorado River supply dwindles, the U.S. and Mexico are looking to Israel and Jordan for ideas on how to help quench their own shared border.

Desalination Plant

Aerial image of the Yuma Desalting Plant.

The interviews for this story took place from fall 2019 to spring 2020 as part of the author’s Ted Scripps Fellowship at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism. The story was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

This story was originally published on 

Shattering the stillness of a frigid January moonlit sky, the sunrise’s amber aura glimmers over the Tinajas Altas mountain range — giving way to a sandscape of semi-succulent shrubs.

The sun’s increasingly insistent rays animate an otherwise desolate desert corridor that links the city of Yuma, Arizona, to the San Luis Port of Entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. White school buses shuttle Mexican agricultural workers to Arizonan farm acreage, home to America’s heartland of winter leafy greens. Just a few miles west is the Colorado River, the region’s historic lifeblood — a lifeblood so under threat that the Bureau of Reclamation declared its first federal shortage for the basin Aug. 16.   

A little more than 7,500 miles due east, another arid expanse — the Arava Valley — slithers through similarly hostile environmental conditions along the border of Israel and Jordan, enlivened by the occasional kibbutz or solar field. A barricade of mountains divides the two countries until their forced meeting point at the Red Sea. The predominantly parched valley holds just occasional floodwaters, underscoring Israel and Jordan’s shared need for an elusive natural resource: water. This need has, in recent decades, allowed for collaboration in an otherwise strained relationship.

"Water, by its very nature, is used to extinguish fires, not to ignite them," Munther Haddadin wrote in his 2002 book, "Diplomacy on the Jordan: International Conflict and Negotiated Resolution," while he was Jordan’s chief water negotiator. Despite tensions in other areas of diplomacy, as well as ongoing criticism regarding Israel’s water distribution to Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank, Israel and Jordan have largely been able to collaborate on this resource. Nearly two decades later, Oded Fixler, deputy director general of Israel’s Ministry of Regional Cooperation, echoed Haddadin, saying, "Water is a means of cooperation and not a cause for dispute."  

This diplomatic reality largely comes because of Israel’s desalination operations, which make it possible for the salty Mediterranean Sea to provide around 80 percent of the country’s drinking water. Such innovation has made it so Israel no longer faces the same water challenges that some other countries in the region do, and has also become a backbone for a fragile peace with Jordan.

San Diego County Water Authority.

"I wouldn’t say desalination has improved relations with Jordan," said Alon Tal, now a member of the Israeli parliament for the Blue and White party, but chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy at the time of interview. "It has saved bad relations from becoming no relations at all."

In North America, the countries that share the Colorado River Delta are experiencing a similar reality as their own diplomatic relationship is shaped by cross-border water exchanges. And like Israel and Jordan, the U.S. and Mexico are considering the role desalination might play in sharing this vital resource.

"There are a lot of obstacles to doing a joint investment with a water exchange," said Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center and editor of the 2012 book "Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges." "If they could do that in the Israel-Jordan-Palestine area, if we want to do it here, we should be able to. The political situation makes it so difficult to get things done in that region, yet they’re doing it."

Bolstering resilience

The Colorado River traverses the U.S.–Mexico border and, due to withdrawals and diversions upstream, typically peters off just a couple miles south of the Morelos Dam. Straddling the two countries at the junction of the Canal Alimentador Central and the Colorado River, the dam controls water flow from the U.S. to its neighbor. While local residents dream of seeing the river flow along its historic route — from the Rocky Mountain headwaters to the Sea of Cortez — that’s unlikely to happen without a big boost to the region’s water supply through desalination and wastewater reuse.

Establishing a desalination facility jointly operated by the U.S. and Mexico could help "bolster resilience in the Colorado River Basin," according to the Binational Study of Water Desalination Opportunities in the Sea of Cortez. The April 2020 study is a product of the Minute 323 accord, a 2017 agreement focused on bolstering the Colorado River Basin. The study’s authors explored the feasibility of a shared desalination plant in a region "home to some of the most prolific agricultural areas in the world" where limited resources threaten "economic vitality."

Looking at water projections for Arizona, Nevada and California, the authors estimated deficits — the difference between water demand and what the Colorado River can provide — of just under 1 million acre-feet of water per year by 2035. With similar calculations for Mexico, the researchers projected a deficit of 160,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030 in Sonora and northern Baja California.

A desalination facility at the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California — the body of water that the Colorado River historically drained into — would provide an additional 50,000 to 200,000 acre-feet of water per year. Funding for such a project would most likely come from a U.S. state or another American entity, which would then gain access to some of the water Mexico is entitled to under the Colorado River treaty — a fixed 1.5 million acre-feet annual supply of Colorado River water guaranteed to Mexico in 1944 by the Mexican Water Treaty — through the Imperial Dam, according to Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Mexico, in exchange, would be able to use the desalinated water that the facility would produce.


The Morelos Dam controls water flow from the U.S. to Mexico.

Sharon Udasin

In January 2020, Buschatzke, co-chair of the Binational Desalination Work Group that produced the study, expressed confidence that a Sea of Cortez facility would eventually materialize.

"We’re going to end up with a project," Buschatzke said. "Too many folks in the U.S. need more water."

Decades of water exchanges

While today desalination is key to cross-border water exchanges between Israel and Jordan, such exchanges were playing a fundamental role in the stability between the two countries long before Israel launched its desalination program. Since the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Israel has been storing a portion of its neighbor’s Jordan River allocations in the Sea of Galilee. But the path toward partnership required sacrifices by both countries’ government officials, who saw water as a mutual avenue to peace.

Two years prior to the agreement, Haddadin, who later became a minister of water and irrigation in Jordan, observed that "a new era of historic significance, an era of peace, was dawning on the Middle East," in his autobiographical account, "Diplomacy on the Jordan."

After Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in Israel in 1996, followed by King Abdullah II succeeding his father in Jordan in 1999, relations between the neighbors deteriorated — but despite that, Haddadin observed, water "continued to flow and proved to be an element of cooperation for the benefit of both sides."

In 1999, Haddadin explained, the region was so parched that the Israeli water commissioner slashed domestic irrigation but ensured that Jordan continued receiving its share until the Sea of Galilee reached "Red Line" levels. He credited the peace treaty’s water allocations for saving "Jordan from devastating effects of drought" and praised Israel for honoring "most of her commitments to Jordan, at a time when she badly needed the water herself."

Political tensions notwithstanding, Israel and Jordan were for almost a decade promoting a newer exchange initiative — the Red Sea–Dead Sea Water Conveyance project —  which would have created a desalination plant in southern Jordan while replenishing a dwindling Dead Sea with the residual brine. But both the COVID-19 pandemic and Israel’s domestic political turmoil — four successive elections in two years — stalled the project, and Jordan reportedly decided to pull the plug on the project earlier this summer, according to The Times of Israel.

Desalination in Isreal1

During construction of the Yuma Desalting Plant, redirected agricultural runoff from Arizona to a desert spot in Sonora created an “accidental wetland,” the Ciénega de Santa Clara. 

Sharon Udasin

If the plan would have come to fruition, it would have enabled Jordan to sell Israel more than half of the potable water generated at the southern facility in exchange for an increase in its Sea of Galilee allocations along the northern border, where Jordan lacks resources for Syrian refugees. Israel had also agreed to boost water sales to the Palestinian Authority.

Instead, Jordan is evaluating building its own internal desalination plant in Aqaba, the report said.

But with or without the new project, the historic water exchanges between Israel and Jordan remain intact — and that is in large part due to a robust desalinated water supply.  

Desalination is not a magical solution, however. The technology is expensive and energy intensive. Governments should only implement this alternative, Fixler warns, after ensuring they have taken measures like reducing water loss, updating regulations, setting reasonable prices and reusing water.

Yet as temperatures in the Middle East and elsewhere keep rising, Tal remains resolute about desalination’s role in future water economies.

"Of course, we need to have more water," he said. "I’m an unapologetic technology enthusiast when it comes to water."

From adversary to partner

Crossing the border from the U.S. to Mexico at the San Luis Port of Entry is a rather unremarkable event — a nondescript vestibule, lacking any visible passport control, leads to a relatively quiet street that could be a continuation of the Arizona city of San Luis, aside from the Spanish-only signage. Mexican agricultural workers pass through each morning to cultivate Arizonan fields, while Americans head southbound to visit the dental and veterinary clinics of San Luis Río Colorado.

About 20 miles north is the Morelos Dam. Mexico and the U.S. jointly maintain and administer the dam through the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).

Men looking at pipes

Israel’s desalination operations have been key to the country’s water security and relations.

U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

Standing nearby, San Luis Río Colorado resident and conservationist Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca gestures nostalgically at the bathtub rings on the concrete piers of the Morelos Dam’s spillway, recalling a brief moment in 2014 when the water supply was uncharacteristically abundant.

"All the gates were open," said Calvo-Fonseca, a biological monitoring coordinator for Mexican conservation group Pronatura Noroeste.

During that highly celebrated two-month "pulse flow" in 2014, the U.S. released 107,000 acre-feet of water into the Colorado River Delta as a condition of the Minute 319 accord in 2012. The Minute was an addendum to the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, an agreement that, through its allocation of basin water to Mexico, has pushed the limits on the 15 million acre-feet per year of Colorado River water already earmarked for seven U.S. states.

Karl Flessa, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona, who has been researching the Colorado River Delta since 1992, credits Minute 319 for transforming the U.S. perception of Mexico "as a partner in the Colorado River rather than an adversary."

"Both Mexico and the states are going to work together at the same time to divvy up Colorado River water," Flessa said. "Mexico now has a seat at the table."

The 2017 Minute 323 agreement aimed to bolster the basin’s co-management, letting Mexico continue to store water in Lake Mead in the same way Jordan does in Israel’s Sea of Galilee. In addition to requiring a U.S. investment of $31.5 million in Mexican water projects, Minute 323 also cited several opportunities for water exchanges and created the Binational Desalination Work Group.

Water pipes

The Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego opened in 2015 and meets around 10 percent of San Diego County’s demand.

San Diego County Water Authority

Sally Spener, foreign affairs officer for the IBWC, said Minute 323 "transcends partisan politics."

"People worry that that could somehow bleed over and disrupt in some way our water relationship, but really that hasn’t happened," Spener said. “We sort of operate in this sphere in which these other issues aren’t impacting us on a regular basis.”

Just a tool in the toolbox?

The Colorado River Basin is not entirely new to desalination. A largely defunct facility sits about two miles northeast of the Morelos Dam, in Arizona, just a stone’s throw away from the river’s pebbly banks.

Briefly operational in 1992 and 1993, the Yuma Desalting Plant was originally conceived in the 1970s as a way to treat saline agricultural runoff flowing from Arizona to Mexico. During construction, the U.S. set up the Main Outlet Drain Extension (MODE) canal to temporarily redirect agricultural runoff from Arizona’s Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District to a desert spot in Sonora. But that drainage created an "accidental wetland," the Ciénega de Santa Clara.

Running the Yuma Desalting Plant at greater than one-third capacity would eliminate the wetland’s lifeblood, replacing the habitat’s saltwater resource with residual brine concentrate from desalination operations that would be too salty for some of the wetland’s flora. After facing flood damage in 1993 the facility only underwent one pilot run in 2010–11.

"We are in a standby ready state," said Mike Norris, deputy area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. "If there’s ever a crisis then there would have to be a decision — do you preserve a wetland or deal with a water security issue?"

Located about an hour south of San Luis Río Colorado, the Ciénega de Santa Clara ecosystem is accessible via Sonora State Highway 40 — an empty rural road that runs parallel with the dry Colorado River channel. A sudden exit off the highway leads to a dusty trail of bumpy sandbars.

Where salty water first meets sand, the reservoir is just a couple inches deep. But a wooden dock stretches into a 15,000-acre marsh that hosts a lush habitat of white pelicans and predatory ospreys circulating above.

Juan Butron Mendez was in his mid-20s when the runoff suddenly began to flow into the Ciénega.

"We used to walk by foot from here to there — and we’d walk without needing to get into the water," Butron-Mendez, now nearly 70, recalls. "As time passed, the water kept rising and rising and rising."

Butron-Mendez, a farmer who also monitors birds for Pronatura, said he fears that the Ciénega’s endangered avian species could disappear entirely if the U.S. chose to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant. The sudden deluge in the late 1970s, he explains, let fish populations reproduce and "gave life to so much vegetation."

With the fairly unanimous view that this unique biosphere should remain intact, experts on both sides of the border have been promoting other ways to ensure water security — some through augmentation projects and others through intensive conservation tactics.

John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico, favors the latter. He cites San Diego County as a cautionary tale. It’s a region that implemented successful conservation measures to cope with drought — after having already made a pricey purchase commitment to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

"They conserved their way out of the mess, but they were stuck paying for the water," Fleck said.

While acknowledging the high cost of desalination, Jeremy Crutchfield, San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) water resources manager, stresses the importance of ensuring local supply development and conservation.

San Diego County water officials entered a public-private partnership with Poseidon Water, the Carlsbad plant’s developer and manager, in 2012 following 15 years of research. The facility, which opened in 2015, meets around 10 percent of San Diego County’s demand and has raised household water bills by about $5 a month, according to Crutchfield.

"A lot of that low-hanging fruit — the shower heads, the toilet replacements, the smart meters, the turf replacements — a lot of that has already been done," said Crutchfield. "We have to continue to develop and improve these opportunities, but we also have to meet what our ratepayers want."

A 2015 facility meets around 10% of San Diego County’s demand and has raised household water bills by about $5 a month.

If the U.S. and Mexico do go ahead with a desalination facility along the Sea of Cortez, the cost of transporting water to distant farming zones would be "staggering" and construction would take about a decade, according to Flessa, the University of Arizona geoscientist.

"Let’s stop talking about the fact that there’s not enough water," said Flessa, who favors solutions such as shifting to higher value crops and advancing water reclamation. "Let’s talk about how there’s too much demand."

While acknowledging that desalination would likely play some role in the region’s future, Flessa warns that it is hardly a "magic bullet."  

Officials must make a choice, said University of Arizona’s Megdal, about whether desalination is "just a tool in the toolbox," like conservation and water reuse, or if the technology is "somehow the savior."

"I don’t see the reason to limit the consideration of desalination, which really is, at this point, a mainstream augmentation approach," said Megdal. "It remains to be seen how agreements could work between the U.S. and Mexico, to see if you could essentially do what is occurring between Israel and Jordan — jointly fund the installation of the technology connected with the sale of other water supplies."

Embracing the 'last resort'

Facing increasingly hostile environmental conditions across state and national lines, Western U.S. water policymakers are inching toward the innovative, yet costly, solutions that Israel and Jordan have already embraced. Both boundaries share the unignorable similarity of "a wealthy hegemonistic country next to a developing, poor country," stresses Tal, the Tel Aviv University professor turned parliament member.

"The lesson learned for Israelis is that it is in your self-interest to be benevolent," he said.

There are many key differences between these two distant desert regions, but the climatic and diplomatic struggles they share could steer them on a similar path of collaborative resource management.

Fixler, the Israeli Ministry of Regional Cooperation official, points to some divergences between the water sectors in Israel and the Western U.S. — stressing the fact that the U.S. relies on privatized, open markets.

Israeli regulations, meanwhile, decree that every resident must pay the same price for water, no matter the real cost of delivering it. Water extraction in Israel occurs wherever doing so is least expensive, regardless of the need for long-distance transport over changing elevations, such as the half-mile rise from the Mediterranean Sea to Jerusalem, Fixler explains.

"The tariff of the water keeps the sector a closed market,” he said.

Israel also only began desalinating as a "last resort," according to Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of the cross-border environmental organization EcoPeace Middle East. Fresh water in Israel is so expensive, he explains, that it makes more sense financially to use desalinated water for environmental restoration, such as restoring river flow or refilling natural basins.  

Bromberg expresses concern that Western states in the U.S., on the other hand, have not implemented sufficient efficiency improvements and that only a government subsidy would enable farmers to purchase desalinated water. Unlike Israel and Jordan, he argues, the Colorado River Delta region is very susceptible to changes in willingness to subsidize the resource — which, in a sense, "actually makes the Colorado system more vulnerable than the Israeli system."

Buschatzke, the Arizona Department of Water Resources director, recognizes the challenges of coordinating "multiple jurisdictions with multiple authorities" but touted desalination as a powerful tool for supply security.

"I do not believe that there can be enough conservation to close the gaps that we’re seeing in the future," he said.  

While there is no question in Buschatzke’s mind that binational desalination would help the region, he said that the remaining debate centers on the end goal — whether the resource should be directed toward growth or toward replenishing the river flow. Either way, maintaining a strong binational partnership will be key.

"We need all hands on deck when it comes to managing the river," he said.

Ultimately, Buschatzke characterizes desalination as an instrument that could "help reduce conflict" in fragile border regions and "a bargaining chip to make people come together."

"Everybody needs water, everybody wants water, and it creates opportunities for people to come together and create solutions," he said. 

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