It’s hard to know whether Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally’s “Water-Energy Technology Demonstration and Deployment Act” is a serious bill. Congress doesn’t do much of anything these days, so probably not. But, serious or not, it is a very bad idea masquerading as a good-sounding one.
The good-sounding idea is the creation of a partnership between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Energy to do neat stuff involving water and technology and energy demonstration etc. The bad part is a congressional intervention to goose the restart of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Desalting Plant.
I’m all for having a conversation about restarting YDP. But Congress is a lousy place to do it.
The Yuma plant has a long and checkered history. Completed in 1992 to desalinate agricultural drain water on its way to Mexico, the YDP has essentially never been used. This has always pained Arizona, which suffers under Law of the River math that leaves it increasingly vulnerable to Colorado River shortages. The details are crazy complicated, but essentially every acre foot of water cleaned up at the YDP and put to some human use is an acre feet less risk to Arizona.
So from Arizona’s perspective, what McSally is trying to do makes sense. Not “Water-Energy Technology Demonstration and Deployment” sense, but Colorado River water shortage sense. But there are important environmental tradeoffs, which is why the YDP has always been part of the broader discussions among states, national governments on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and environmental groups.
The problem is that every acre foot of water cleaned up at the YDP and put to some human use is lost to one of the last fragments of habitat in the Colorado River Delta.
The tradeoff is the Ciénega de Santa Clara, an environmental haven that is currently the beneficiary of the water that would otherwise go to the YDP. Here’s Audubon’s Jennifer Pitt explaining its significance:
Mexico manages the Ciénega de Santa Clara as a federal natural area with the highest protections of its Biosphere Reserve program, and it is listed in the International Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Notably, the Ciénega is home to 70 percent of the world’s remaining population of the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, listed as an endangered species in the United States. Indeed these birds travel back and forth between the two countries.
The Colorado River is so completely developed that it no longer flows down its final 100 miles. The water supply for the Ciénega de Santa Clara originates as Colorado River water that, after irrigating farms in Southern Arizona, flows as brackish water too salty for farming and then drains into a canal that has fed the Ciénega for nearly 50 years. Senator McSally’s legislation would eliminate this water supply, and destroy the Ciénega.
I happen to agree with Jennifer on this, but it’s a reasonable thing to debate. Is it better to continue to send this water to the Ciénega, or to clean it up and put it to human use?
In my 2016 book Water is For Fighting Over, I drilled down into the history of YDP as an example of the benefits of considering tradeoffs like this in the context of the broad collaborative framework of Colorado River problem-solving. This is the part where all the interested parties get together to work through the tradeoffs. An important part of this collaborative tradition in the Colorado River Basin is the norm that members of Congress don’t try run bills that do an end run around the process, trying to advantage their state at the expense of others.
As one of my friends complained in the face of a similar example some years back when a member of Congress (yeah, from Arizona) tried a similar move, it’s just not the way we do things on the Colorado River.