Draining the budget to desalt the Colorado

  • The Yuma Desalting Plant sits idle

    Charles Krejcsi, The Arizona Republic
  • Yuma, Arizona

  • Harold R. Pritchett stands in the control room of the Yuma plant

    Charles Krejcsi

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 drinking.

It is meant only to clarify water enough so that it can be dumped into farmers' fields.

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.

In a region covered with water-reclamation projects of fabulous expense and questionable usefulness, the Yuma plant may be the biggest laughingstock of all.

"I 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 Furman.

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.

In the 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 water.

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 crops.

By international treaty, the United States is obligated to guarantee at least 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Mexico.

"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 justified.

"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.

The desalination 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 the plant.

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 farms.

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 million.

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 acre-foot.

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 north.

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 plant open.

Some environmentalists say the plant should be shut down once and for all.

"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 Mexico.

The Bureau of Reclamation has considered removing existing vegetation along the lower Colorado River and replacing it with vegetation that uses less water.

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 the district.

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 Wellton-Mohawk district.

The economy in the Mohawk Valley, where 4,500 people live, would be destroyed, he said.

"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 that."

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.

A 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 month.

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 worth.

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 service.

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