Desalination, Arizona, and magical thinking

Tony Davis had a great story in the Daily Star over the weekend on the allure of desalination of ocean water as Arizona struggles with shrinking Colorado River supplies.

Tony’s excellent work on this question susses out the problems:

  • ocean desal is costly, like really costly
  • ocean desal is energy intensive, like really energy intensive
  • desal is environmentally messy, like really environmentally messy, especially in the already damaged and fragile Gulf of California

A few key bits.

First ASU’s Kathy Ferris:

“We have to start taking care of our own house before we can be asking people to put money into new supplies,” said Kathy Ferris, a former Arizona Department of Water Resources director and an Arizona State University research fellow. “We’re not doing that. It’s too hard to say no, too hard to say we’re not going to do business as usual. Instead of trying to clean house, it’s easier to say we will go out and find more water and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

USC’s Amy Childress:

Amy Childress, a civil-environmental engineering professor at the University of Southern California, has spent 20 years researching various processes using membranes for desalination, wastewater reclamation and water treatment in general. Asked about the potential for desalination by Arizona, she said, “I guess the key thing is, before going to ocean water desalination, qe have to ask have we done all the conserving we can do? Have we maximized wastewater reuse? Are there are opportunities to import that could be easier?

“I didn’t hear that whole plan out of the Arizona governor. I just heard something that seems like a quick fix, and I don’t think his plan is a quick fix,” Childress said.

A note on the journalism….

If you’re reading this, you’re probably someone who cares about western water issues in general, and likely the Colorado River Basin in particular. Tony’s work (along with that of quite a few a other folks working in the basin) is incredibly important to our shared understanding of the issues we face.

I don’t know if the link above will work for non-subscribers. I’m a paying subscriber to the Star. I know it’s hard for an individual to pony up to pay for all the publications doing this, but if you have the money to contribute to this ecosystem, do it. Subscribe to the Star, or subscribe somewhere.

If you’re one of my readers at the well-funded institutions working on these issues, get your institution to pay for a subscription! Journalism like this isn’t free to produce.


  1. It is paywalled, but I get the drift, sort of. We write checks to the NY Times, Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican and the New Yorker. Hard to cover everyone but your idea of institutional subscriptions is a good one.

  2. It will cost more to maintain the status quo going forward. Arizona still thinks it can continue with business as usual even though the signs are becoming obvious. Former Arizona Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt penned this recently:

    “The upper Verde River is in danger of extinction. If groundwater pumping from the Big Chino basin is not controlled, this section of the live, free flowing river will eventually be lost for all time.”

    The river is also part of the Salt River Project, which provides surface water to the Phoenix metro area.

  3. Ocean water desalination is anything but a “quick fix”- as it will undoubtedly require a decade or more to produce the first drop of potable water. But, as multiple reports have indicated in recent years, desalination is going to have to be one of the solutions for our long-term water sustainability in the Desert Southwest. Sure, it’s important to continue to work on ways to further improve our conservation, but it appears to me that we have essentially already implemented all the “quick fix” conservation measures and now we are going to have to start some increasingly painful cuts. So we have a decade or more ahead during which we can get used to these painful impacts on our desert lifestyles. Meanwhile, we need to also get started on desalination projects as have many countries around the world in similar circumstances!

  4. In 1968 Mo Udall, Wayne Aspinall, Stewart Udall and Floyd Dominy suckered the Upper Basin into supporting CAP with a “big lie”, the promise of massive importation into the Colorado Basin to compensate for the massive shortfall in the river caused by removing the Gila from the compact, the Mexico Treaty and building CAP. Importation was already DOA in ‘68 and they knew it. Cloud seeding was all they had. All the docs covering this big lie are on my Twitter feed @edmillard and website.

    Desal is obviously too expensive for Ag water but cities can pretty obviously afford it, Israel has been doing it for years. If the river isn’t augmented CAP is supposed to be shut off entirely under that 1968 deal which will be REALLY expensive. Brenda Burman told Arizona exactly that in the Summer of 2018 to get them to sign the DCP. There is a Youtube, it was an amazing, eloquent, forceful and concise speech.

    Needless to say you and Anne Castle just want to wipe out agriculture and rural communities in the Upper Basin who depend on it instead. Anne famously said at a Demand Management workshop in Salt Lake in 2019, “the burden for this falls on Ag”. Brent Newman’s jaw literally dropped, not because it wasn’t true but because she had the poor judgement to say it out loud. Every time I hear Anne since I remember that, and her agenda; tribes first, cities and environment second, agriculture is the fall guy.

  5. Kathy Ferris has the right take.
    “Sustainable development” is a fraud. It was promised in the Brundtland Commission. It was a fraud then and it is a fraud now. But if they hadn’t included that it would have caused the whole report to be thrown out. “The Limits to Growth – Club of Rome” came out in 1972. It was criticized and ignored. But they were right.
    All new development adds to the existing problems. There are the possible exceptions of carports with solar roofs and windmills.
    No one wants to take on a full moratorium. There is the immense problem of providing income to all the folks who will be out of work. We’ll need a UBI, universal basic income, that will have to come out of the wealth of our oligarchs.
    Or, we just go on destroying the planet and us with it.
    I would form a brain trust at the national level to start working through the problems. The current piecemeal reactions are getting nowhere.

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