The Colorado River’s desalination plant is on its last legs

The obscure Paradox Valley Unit keeps the Colorado River’s salinity levels in check for farmers, but causes quakes upstream.

  • Paradox Valley Unit Facility operations specialist Andy Nicholas at the Paradox Valley injection well, which shoots salty brine 14,000 feet beneath the Dolores River.

    Stephen Elliott
 

The Paradox Valley in western Colorado got its name because the Dolores River bisects it, rather than running through it in the normal topographical fashion. The landscape is short on people, long on sagebrush and probably best known for the dramatic red cliffs that loom over travelers making the long drive from Telluride, Colorado, to Moab, Utah. This remote valley was formed millions of years ago, when a huge dome of salt collapsed. Now, that salt remains, buried just within the earth, and as a white, crystalline blanket atop the red soil.

And that’s a problem. The waters of the Dolores pick up that salt and carry it to the Colorado River, where it eventually degrades the water quality for downstream cities and farmers. For about a quarter century, however, an unassuming facility has been tackling this salt. Every minute, in fact, the Paradox Valley Unit sucks nearly 200 gallons of brine, which is seven times saltier than ocean water, from wells here, then shoots it 14,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface, in order to keep it out of the river. It’s perhaps the most critical piece of a massive project designed to keep salt out of the Colorado River, but it’s in trouble. The facility itself is near the end of its lifespan, and there is no obvious replacement. Not only that: The re-injection process can cause earthquakes.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation operates the Paradox Valley Unit under the auspices of the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program, which was created by Congress in 1974. At the time, the river was highly saline once it reached Mexico, thanks to a combination of natural loading and upstream irrigation. That risked violating a U.S. water treaty with Mexico, and it also had what retired hydrologist Dan Luecke, a former consultant for the Justice Department and several environmental organizations, calls “adverse effects” on agriculture, on water treatment in urban areas and on the environment.  Salty water reduces crop yields when it’s used for irrigation on the 5 million acres of farmland along the Colorado, and it mucks up water treatment plants in the municipalities, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas, that rely on the river.

The Paradox unit began operating in 1991. Since then, it’s kept some 2.6 million tons of salt out of the river, making it by far the most productive of the dozens of the salinity control program’s projects in the watershed.

The locals, however, are paying for the downstreamers’ gains. Since injection began, approximately 6,000 earthquakes have shaken the valley, where previously seismic activity had been virtually unknown. Scientists generally agree that the tremors are caused by the deep injection at the facility, much as wastewater injection wells are causing quakes in oil and gas fields in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

Though the quakes are relatively minor, about 100 have been above the threshold for human detection. There have been no official reports of damage, but one local farmer said that the last significant earthquake, a 4.4-magnitude event in January 2013, broke a dam and caused a creek to flood; his wife thought a truck had crashed into their home. After that episode, operators reduced brine injection pressures and volumes. Since then, the tremors have calmed a bit.

Meanwhile, the facility is facing its own existential crisis. The injection well deposits the salty brine about 2.5 miles down into the Mississippian Leadville formation, in a space that will eventually fill up, rendering the facility useless. Officials aren’t sure how long they have, but Andy Nicholas, facility operations specialist, estimates about 10 years, 20 tops.

So the Bureau of Reclamation is scrambling for another way to get the salt out. Either a second well could be drilled, risking more tremors, or the salt could be disposed of in vast evaporation ponds. Both options have their drawbacks, including expense and the lack of available land nearby. An environmental impact study is underway to review alternatives, but it could take several more years.

Without the unit’s deep injection, the salt that covers the desert valley floor at Paradox, and the thousands of tons of it just beneath the surface, will continue to flow to the Colorado River and its millions of downstream users. Each ton of salt in the river causes $173 in damage to crops, water treatment facilities and the like, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. That puts the price tag for going without the Paradox unit at around $457 $19 million annually, and that doesn’t account for the damage done to fish, bugs and other aquatic life. As Luecke says, something has to be done: “It’s important that that salt be taken out.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.