February 17, 2011 -
‘It’s not safe’, warned us Jennifer McCloskey, Area Manager at the Yuma Desalination Plant (YDP), located right at the border between the USA and Mexico. Although nobody is robbing us or shooting at us, we understand what she means after a few hundred metres along the US-Mexican border: the first border patrol car we see pulls us over.
Even though McCloskey had sent out a message that we were going to take the dirt road following the border the message had clearly not come across. Big border officers with even bigger sunglasses scan our passports, while dust settles on our car and the heat overrules the air conditioner. Everything is all right, we may continue. We pass the Morelos dam, the first and biggest Colorado dam in Mexico, right on the border. Then like a mirage a giant wall appears in the hot distance. The rusty coloured metal fence must be at least four metres high. This wall was clearly built to keep people out. The only thing that makes it across the border here is water.
‘Indeed’, says Jennifer McCloskey back at the Yuma Desalination Plant, in a cool meeting room, where the blond, energetic woman gives a presentation about the history of the Yuma Desalination Plant. Water is a precious commodity, especially in the desert. That’s the main reason why the USA built such a massive desalination plant in Yuma, right on the Mexican border. Construction was agreed upon by the US Congress as far back as 1974. When construction was finished in 1992, it was the biggest desalination plant in the world. ‘Since then, we’ve been overtaken by Saudi Arabia and Egypt’, admits McCloskey. The YDP remains however the biggest desalination plant in the USA.
The desalination plant in Yuma
The history of the YDP has its peculiarities: after start up in 1992, the plant ran for only nine months before it was closed down after flood damage. ‘At the time we had a water surplus situation,’ explains McCloskey. ‘Desalination plants cost a lot of money and there was no urgent reason to start it up again.’ For about eighteen years, the 250 million Dollar plant lay idle in the desert. Apart from a 90-day trial run in 2007 at 10% of maximum capacity, the plant stayed dormant until May 2010 when the YDP started a new trial run, at 30% capacity. The one-year test run cost 23 million Dollars, of which the governments of California, Arizona and New Mexico paid 14 Million, in what officials called ‘unprecedented state-federal cooperation’. For their financial support the states got to store some precious extra water in Lake Mead to counter the continuing drought in the area.
But where does this ‘extra’ water come from?
‘We are cleaning water from the Wellton-Mohawk diversion canal’, explains McCloskey. ‘This water has a high salinity level and contains agricultural pollutants that were washed off the fields in southern Arizona. The desalinated water is transferred to the Colorado River where it counts towards the 1,5 MAF of water that the US has to deliver annually to Mexico.
Originally this water goes across the border where it ends up in the Cienaga de Santa Clara, a Wetland area in Mexico. This wetland was an unintended side effect after the construction of the Welton Mohawk Canal. But by now it is considered to be one of the most precious wet areas along the North American west coast. Environmentalist Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund: `Since more than thirty years, the Colorado river delta has hardly seen any Colorado water at all. The lush delta that was home to abundant wildlife and a vibrant fishing industry has completely dried up. The salty water that is delivered by the Welton Mohawk Canal created the Cienaga wetland. This area has become a refuge for dozens of bird and fish species, including the endangered Yuma Clapper Rail. Though created inadvertently, the Cienega is the largest remnant of the delta.’.’
But what will happen if the YDP will continue after a successful test run, and most of the water that feeds the Cienega is desalinated and diverted to the Colorado?
Pitt: ‘thanks to extensive negotiations between several environmental organisations in the US and Mexico, and the governments of all parties concerned a truly revolutionary solution was agreed upon. The reduced water flow of the canal is replaced by water that will come from other sources. One third will be delivered by the US government; one third by the Mexican government and one third by the environmental organisations. This flow increase will have to come from, amongst other sources, buying up water rights of farmers in Mexico.’
Jennifer McClosky: `When we started this project in May 2010, nobody knew if the twenty year old membranes in the plant would still be functioning. But they do! There are other techniques nowadays to clean water that are regarded to be more modern, but our system works very well with the type of water that we have here. So far, we are very happy with our test results. We are cleaning water more efficiently than expected and at a lower price than foreseen.’
What will be the future of YDP after this test run? McCloskey doesn’t know. ‘It depends on many factors, among others the economic situation in the country and the question whether the drought will continue. Water is becoming scarcer and scarcer. And closing down the factory will cost money as well. So you’ll have to make a decision: do we want to invest twenty million Dollars in closing the factory and cleaning up the site, or do we invest twenty million Dollars to modernise the factory?
By: Jeroen Kuiper
Photos: Ronald de Hommel
February 8, 2011 -
Ronald de Hommel
A desert landscape; abandoned crumbling hotels; dry swimming pools; dead palm trees; a salty lake with white salt-encrusted beaches and dead fish. Welcome to the Salton Sea, an apocalyptic place in the forgotten southeast corner of California.
Text: Ronald de Hommel
Photos: Johannes Abeling / Ronald de Hommel
“This place was thriving back in the 60 and 70s; nothing but people; people walking their dogs, watching their kids playing. It was a nice community at the time.” Lawrence Parker (60) remembers those days with nostalgia when he stares across the rusty fence that separates him from the calm lake. His electric wheelchair almost gets stuck in the cracked asphalt of Salton Sea Beach, a small community of crumbling wooden houses, rotting trailers and boarded up restaurants and motels.
Parker came in 1974 to Salton Sea Beach, then a young and aspiring town on the coast of the Salton Sea. He came for the climate that is beneficial to his arthritis.
“They called it the Californian Riviera. Many people bought a piece of land and built holiday homes. It was cheap out here, but the land prices were rising fast.”
In those years the area boomed. It became a hangout for the rich and famous from Hollywood and Palm Springs. But at the end of the eighties the tide turned, literally. The water level suddenly rose, flooding whole neighbourhoods. Massive fish die-offs that created a pungent smell, and rumours of pesticide pollution scared away the tourists. The boom was over as quickly as it had begun. Only those who couldn’t afford to leave, like Parker, remained.
The Salton Sea, the largest lake of California is, at 70m below sea level, the second lowest place in the USA. It shouldn’t even have been there. It was accidentally created a century ago when a levee of an irrigation canal, supplying the Imperial Valley (on the south shore) burst. The low-lying valley filled up and after the canal was fixed, the runoff of the agricultural lands sustained the water level.
Farmers and local authorities have always treated the Salton Sea as the drain of Imperial Valley. When the farmers had a water surplus, like in the 80s, they dumped it in the lake, flooding the towns.
In recent years, after ten years of drought, farmers in the Imperial Valley are introducing new water conservation methods like drip irrigation. Instead of benefiting the Salton Sea, the water is sold to thirsty Los Angeles and San Diego.
Lately the water levels in the Sea have dropped with as much as 1 meter a year. Many fear that if nothing is done about it, there won’t be a Salton Sea left in a few decades. This will cause new problems. Palm Springs, 35 miles north, fears dust storms of pesticide-polluted salt particles. Environmentalists fear for the millions of migratory birds for whom this is the last remaining wetland in California.
So far, all initiatives to save the sea have failed. The Salton Sea is a perfect example of the choices that are made when the water runs out. The big cities, the massive agricultural lands and even the golf courses of Phoenix, AZ come first. Nature is at the end of the line, or as Lawrence Parker describes it: ‘Water flows to where the money is.’