Who’s the most desperate for water?

YUMA, ARIZ – On the Lower Colorado River, there are three large municipal water wholesalers behaving with a certain air of desperation in their hunt for long term supplies of water: the Southern Nevada Water Authority (Las Vegas), the Metropolitan Water District (Southern California) and the Central Arizona Project (Phoenix/Tucson). So who wants it bad? Here’s a data point.

YDP outlet canal

YDP outlet canal

West of Yuma, in the crook of the bend where the Colorado River turns south into Mexico sits the Yuma Desalting Plant. Built in the 1980s, the plant’s purpose was to take high-salinity agricultural runoff, clean it up via a reverse osmosis process, and send it on down to Mexico to meet part of the U.S. water delivery obligation. But for a variety of reasons, it was never really used. An early ’90s flood on the Gila River damaged the intakes, but mainly it was never really needed. The 1990s were a time of plenty on the Colorado, and there was enough surplus sloshing around in the system that it didn’t make economic sense to run the plant.

That has changed. At the request of the three water giants – SNWA, MWD and CAP – the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is preparing to start up the plant for a test run, to gather data on operating costs, the amount of water that can be produced, etc. Starting May 3, water will start running down the empty concrete drain above and into the Colorado. The water will be used to meet a small part of our delivery obligations to Mexico (something around 30,000 acre feet over the course of a year). The agencies that funded the work will get a credit, and a like amount of water will be stored upstream in Lake Mead with their name attached for their future use.

So here’s the data point. MWD is paying 80 percent of the cost. CAP and SNWA are each kicking in 10 percent. That willingness to pay on the part of MWD tells me something about who needs water the most in the near term.


  1. John,

    Happy Earth Day!

    Your data point is looking at the situation on a surface level. When you say that MWD is more willing to pay than SNWA may be thought as a desperate measure. The flip side of the coin is that MWD may have deeper pockets than either ‘partner’ in the project. My uneducated guess is that they are hedging their bets.

    Your comments were spot on. The key phrase is future use. What may seem considered as a ‘desperate act’ as far today’s standards are concerned, may actually be a wise investment when water shortages are the norm.

    In MWD’s case: If their investment pays back 80% of 30,000 AcFt/yr, that’s 24,000 AcFt/yr.

    Factor in any imposed cutbacks that all the lower basin states will face during a shortage – MWD will still get 80% of the plant’s output in credits. Will a water shortage equate to less output from the desalting plant? I don’t know.

    I do know that an investment made today may pay off in the uncertain future.


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