California Turns to Mexico for Cheap Water, Little Regulation
by David Rosenfeld
After more than a decade of public debate, Southern California water officials are considering Mexico for controversial desalination plants.
With efforts to build large-scale ocean desalination plants along the coast of California taking longer than anticipated, Southern California water agencies are looking more seriously at financing a desalination plant across the border in Mexico.
Water agencies representing southern California, Arizona and Nevada are in discussions with the Mexican government about sharing a desalination plant in Rosarito Beach, just south of San Diego. But it's the San Diego County Water Authority and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that are the most serious, based on interviews with officials.
Construction could begin in as little as two years on a plant producing up to 75 million gallons of fresh water daily. That is more than 50 percent larger than the biggest facility currently planned for California - within San Diego County in Carlsbad - which has been delayed by lawsuits and permitting for more than a decade.
Up to half of the water produced in Rosarito is expected to stay in Mexico to meet local demand. But the rest would be pumped north of the border to American households, said Halla Razak of the San Diego County Water Authority.
"We were happy to find out that we should continue looking into this, that no fatal flaws were found," Razak said.
Meanwhile, San Diego water officials are also working out an agreement with Poseidon Resources to buy desalinated water from its proposed Carlsbad facility. Building a plant in Mexico could produce water faster with arguably less oversight and fewer costs for a region facing droughts on the Colorado River.
Opponents see it as another attempt to take advantage of Mexico for American interests.
"It's absolutely unethical for U.S. water agencies to finance coastal developments in Mexico to serve the insatiable water needs of southern California," said Serge Dedina, Ph.D. executive director of the conservation group, Wildcoast, that focuses on Baja and southern California. "The coast of Baja should not be used for American infrastructure projects."
Dedina said the plan mirrors those by other corporations to exploit Mexico's lower costs and weaker regulations, the same incentives that first brought low-wage jobs by American corporations to the maquilladora sweatshops along the border.
"We're used to evaluating these trans-boundary scams," Dedina said. "The whole thing smacks of another one."
Razak rejected this argument. "A lot of people when they hear this they say, 'Oh great, we can do that and not worry about the environmental implications,'" Razak said. "In Baja, they have very similar regulations as we have north of the border."
But in 2002, Intergen Aztec Energy officials admitted to the NY Times that the power plant it was building in Rosarito would not meet California environmental law. Electricity from the plant is currently transferred north to American households.
Now it is this same power plant that would supply the massive amounts of energy needed to run a proposed desalination facility. The two would also share in-take and out-flow pipes that can kill marine life.
"The effects are the same if you're drawing in seawater for desalination or power plants," said Tom Luster, an analyst with the California Coastal Commission. "You're killing essentially 100 percent of marine life, larva and fish eggs."
Conservation groups in California have been pushing back against plans to build up to 20 desalination plants along the coast. Attorneys have used the multiple permits needed from consumer and environmental protection agencies to file a series of lawsuits against many of the proposed plants.
There are fewer opportunities in Mexico for public input, said Siobhan Dolan, communications director for Desal Response Group.
"The reason they are looking to Mexico is they can get through permitting a lot easier," she said. "When it comes down to it, what they're doing, what the locals know is America is basically coming down here and taking up your coast and getting it done."
Any desalination plant in Baja must also cope with an already polluted coastline."The northern coast of Baja is arguably some of the most polluted coastline in North America," Dedina said. "I'm concerned why American water agencies would put desal plants in areas fouled with raw toxic sewage."
Along with pumping the water directly to users in Southern California, desalinated water from Rosarito could be traded for drawing greater water from the Colorado River by any number of water agencies in California, Arizona and Nevada.
Any contribution by a U.S. water agency could be exchanged for part of Mexico's 1.5 million acre-feet of water guaranteed each year from the Colorado River. Roughly 95 percent of that water is currently used by agriculture.
Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District helped fund the first phase of the Rosarito study with this scenario in mind. But a spokesman for Southern Nevada, J.C. Davis, said it wasn't necessarily a strong strategic move given the current drought.
"Essentially you'd be putting more eggs into a shrinking basket," said Davis, referring to diminishing reserves on the Colorado River.
Mexico could build the plant itself, but so far government officials have not shown much appetite to go it alone. A plant of that size could cost around $1 billion. Mexico is already building a smaller desalination plant in Ensenada and another is planned in nearby La Mision. They would each produce about 5 million gallons per day and meet strictly local demand.
"For Mexico, they are not looking at this at all as a last resort. They are in dire need of water," Razak said. "Mexico is very much interested in our participation because it's a matter of economy of scale. If you have more takers of the water, the overall cost of a unit of water is smaller."
By 2014, the Rosarito area is expected to need an additional 24 million gallons of water per day.
For an indication of just how much Mexico will be willing to contribute to the final project, additional funding for a second phase of study estimated to cost $600,000 is still being negotiated, Razak said.
The Mexican government has agreed to pay for less than a third.
Reprinted with permission from DC Bureau
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