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Arizona Considers Water Pipeline From Mexico to Combat Drought

A proposed desalination plant could be the answer to the dwindling water supply from the Colorado River.

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A bleached ‘bathtub ring’ is visible on the banks of Lake Mead on August 19, 2022 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.
A bleached ‘bathtub ring’ is visible on the banks of Lake Mead on August 19, 2022 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

In an effort to avoid drawing more water from the drought-stricken Colorado River, Arizona officials are looking as far as Mexico for reliable water supply.

Arizona’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority passed a non-binding resolution this week in support of a large desalination plant in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, Arizona Central reported. The idea was initially pitched to the state board by Israeli desalination specialists from IDE Technologies, who claimed that a desalination plant could replace water that flows from the Colorado River through the Central Arizona Project canal. The project would focus on getting water to Pinal, Pima, and Maricopa counties.

IDE representatives plan on submitting an official proposal this week for environmental review. To move forward, the plan will need approval from Mexican officials as well, according to Arizona Central, and IDE said that it had discussed a potential plan with the governor of Sonora, a state in Northern Mexico. According to the IDE representatives, if their proposal passes environmental review and permits are granted, the project could begin producing water by 2027.

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The Sea of Cortez is in the Gulf of California, nestled between Baja California and the Mexican state of Sonora, which is right under Arizona. This makes it an ideal location for a desalination plant. Communities in Mexico and the U.S. could both draw water from the project if it is approved. Once the sea water is desalinated, it will travel from Mexico to Arizona through a series of pipelines. The freshwater would flow into the U.S. in the Organ Pipe National Monument and then follow State Route 85 and into Maricopa County, according to Arizona Central. The water would also flow to the city of Buckeye and into two new reservoirs in White Tank Mountains Regional Park. Past that point, the freshwater would go into the Central Arizona Project’s canal system, which provides water to 5 million people. Cities like Tucson and Phoenix would have access to the water from there.

IDE representatives envisioned a desalination plant in Sonora that would cost more than $5 billion to construct. Once completed, it would supply 300,000 acre-feet, which they say would be enough for more than a million households in Arizona. But this would cost $2,500 per acre-foot (an acre-foot is over 325,000 gallons of water). If that water is mixed with other sources, officials predict it will only raise homeowners water bills a few dollars a month. The plant could be scaled up to provide up to 1 million acre-feet. IDE would finance the construction, but Arizona officials would have to commit to a 100-year purchasing agreement, Arizona Central reported.

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Some of the board members worried that the plans were being pushed forward too quickly. But boardmember Andy Tobin worried about acting too slowly. “We’ve got folks running out of water,” he said, according to Arizona Central.

Tobin is right: Many communities around the state are in desperate need of water solutions. Some people in the state may run out of water by the new year. Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated community in Maricopa County, doesn’t have its own water system. Residents rely on water trucked in from Scottsdale. But late last year, Scottsdale announced that it would cease hauling water there by the beginning of 2023.

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Nearby California has turned to desalination options as well. This October, the California Coastal Commission approved a $140 million desalination plant suggested for South Orange County at Doheny State Beach. Once it’s up and running, the plant will be able to draw up to 5 million gallons of water a day and provide water for more than 30,000 people, according to NBC Los Angeles.