YUMA, Ariz. - When people talk about 1990s boondoggles, conversation often turns to the superconducting super collider, the Hubble space telescope or the space station.
But consider for a moment a
water-desalting plant in the middle of a desert.
Make it the largest, most expensive reverse-osmosis plant ever
built, and keep in mind that it is not designed to purify water for
It is meant only to clarify water
enough so that it can be dumped into farmers'
Then consider that even though the plant
was completed in May 1992, after 12 years of planning and $256
million in construction costs, it now sits idle.
Then you begin to get some appreciation for the Yuma Desalting
Plant, built by the federal Bureau of Reclamation on the banks of
the Colorado River four miles west of Yuma.
region covered with water-reclamation projects of fabulous expense
and questionable usefulness, the Yuma plant may be the biggest
laughingstock of all.
remember flying over that plant in 1983, and either the
commissioner or the assistant commissioner - I can't remember which
one - pointed to that plant and said, "See that? We're going to
shut that down," " said Philip Doe, a Bureau of Reclamation
environmental-compliance coordinator who has become an activist for
changing the bureau's traditional role as a provider of huge
subsidies to irrigators.
Somehow, this plant has
survived every review that recommended shutting it down and
weathered all questions of its effectiveness and exorbitant costs.
It even withstood the fly-by finger-pointing of then-Reclamation
Commissioner Bob Broadbent and his top aide, Hal
It stands now as a memorial to a time
when virtually any reclamation project, no matter how grandiose,
could be approved in a Congress ruled by Western representatives
who believed any water problem in their parched region could be
solved by the engineering feats of man.
case of the Yuma plant, the problem was rather small. The runoff
from the farms in the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District, 30 miles
east of Yuma, was so full of salt that it was dramatically
increasing the salt content of Colorado River
It happened to drain into the river just
a few miles north of the Mexican border, and Mexican farmers
complained that the salt water was killing their
By international treaty, the United
States is obligated to guarantee at least 1.5 million acre-feet of
Colorado River water to
"This plant was never
looked at or justified on an economic basis," said Harold R.
Pritchett, deputy projects manager at the Yuma office of the Bureau
of Reclamation. "It was a political decision made with the Mexican
government." Pritchett said the plant was planned and built at a
time when the national debt was not much of a concern. These days
the staggering losses incurred every year in operating such
projects as the Yuma desalter can't be
"It's going to be
difficult for us to undertake a comprehensive desalting-research
program in our present budget," current Reclamation Commissioner
Dan Beard said.
He said that while the Yuma
plant was in operation from May 1992 to January 1993, some
important research was accomplished, but "it's going to be very
difficult for us to come up with the kind of dollars involved."
The plant alone cost $256 million, according to
the Bureau of Reclamation. The total "salinity control program" in
the Colorado River basin has already cost taxpayers $660 million,
according to the Interior Department's inspector general. Parts of
that salinity program, which Congress authorized in 1974, include
lining the Coachella Canal in California with concrete to save
water that normally seeps into the ground and building a series of
wells along the U.S.-Mexican border to capture groundwater that
could then be given to Mexico.
plant in Yuma has been closed since January 1993, when massive
flooding along the Gila River destroyed some canals that carry
Wellton-Mohawk drainage water to the facility. Reclamation
engineers have been using the opportunity to decide what to do with
In its brief eight-month life, it
never operated at more than one-third of capacity and processed a
grand total of 23,000 acre-feet of water - about the same amount
that would be used in a year on just six average-sized cotton
Operating the plant costs $25.8 million
annually, said Reclamation spokesman Bob Steele, although the
inspector general's office put the cost at $33.7
All of the water that is processed is
unceremoniously dumped into the Colorado River and flows
immediately into Mexico.
The water produced by
the plant costs $290 an acre-foot. By comparison, the water Phoenix
buys from the Salt River Project costs $7 an
The advantage of operating the plant
is that for every acre-foot of water it desalts, another acre-foot
can be diverted out of the Colorado River and into the Central
Arizona Project canal at Lake Havasu, about 100 miles to the
But with the costs so high, engineers are
considering just keeping the plant in stand-by status. The downside
is that it would take a year to restart the plant, and even in
stand-by status, it would still cost $6 million a year to keep the
Some environmentalists say the plant
should be shut down once and for
"It's too bad there is no
way to recoup a half-billion dollars, but it's gone. What can we
do? We can stop before we lose even more," said Gail Peters,
Arizona representative for American Rivers, a national organization
that monitors water development projects.
Peters, in a recent letter to Beard co-written with six other
environmentalists, pointed out that the lining of the Coachella
Canal saves 132,000 acre-feet of water per year, which is now
flowing into the Colorado River.
That is more
than the desalination plant could have produced at peak capacity,
which is an estimated 108,000 acre-feet. Also, in years when the
Gila River is running strong, such as this year, the sediments of
the Wellton-Mohawk district become so diluted that the water does
not have to be desalinated.
Of course, even more
desperate measures are being considered to increase water flow into
The Bureau of Reclamation has considered
removing existing vegetation along the lower Colorado River and
replacing it with vegetation that uses less
There are also occasional whispers about
reviving an option that Congress rejected in 1976: buying out the
farmers in the Wellton-Mohawk district and retiring the farmland in
That would have cost somewhere
between $400 million and $558 million, according to estimates at
the time. In retrospect, that would have been a cheaper option than
the desalination plant.
That figure does not
take into consideration the human costs, said Herb Guenther, a
former state legislator and assistant general manager of the
The economy in the
Mohawk Valley, where 4,500 people live, would be destroyed, he
"You lay off 400 people
at Hughes (Aircraft Corp.), you lay off 400 people at Garrett,
that's one thing," Guenther said. "When you look at the rural
areas, it's a lot more fragile. If you want to write off a county,
if you want to write off their social structure and their way of
life, that's a different consideration. I hope we don't come to
What it might come to is a write-off of
the desalination plant.
The Bureau of
Reclamation budget for the Yuma plant has been cut from $13 million
to $6 million. Formerly on ready-reserve status, the plant status
now requires 60-90 days' notice for startup.
group of Bureau of Reclamation employees have formed a task force
to determine the plant's future, and Reclamation Commissioner Beard
and Congressman Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) were to meet with them this
In a place so big that quicklime and
ferric sulfate, two filter agents, were supposed to be delivered by
the boxcar, where three large ponds, each holding 4.71 million
gallons of water, were built to help remove solids from the water,
and where there is the largest gathering in the world of cellulose
acetate membranes for filtering water, 90 workers wait and wonder
whether they will ever have the chance to prove the plant's
Asked how they are keeping busy, Steele
said, "Well, we've had them doing a lot of maintenance projects.
... I guess they will run out, probably pretty soon."
This story was first
printed in the Arizona Republic as one of a four-part series on the
Central Arizona Project. For copies of the series, call
602/271-8017. The Republic charges a small fee for the