Environment Report: For Long-Term Water Supply, U.S. Officials Look to Mexico
Officials want to study the health effects of dust in the Tijuana River Valley, SoCalGas sees a threat from SoCal Edison and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.
An increasing number of solutions to California and Arizona’s long-term water problems now involve Mexico.
Some of the ideas are seemingly far-fetched, like a pipeline to bring water from the Gulf of California to the Salton Sea in Imperial County. Some are already happening, like Mexico agreeing to reduce its water use in the event of a Colorado River shortage.
After decades of warnings, officials who rely on the Colorado River — which provides water to 40 million Americans and Mexicans — have begun to reckon with the long-known fact that cities and farms are expecting to receive more water from the river than the river usually holds.
That reckoning, combined with a two-decade drought that only made matters worse, is forcing U.S. officials to begin talking about major binational water projects.
That means working with Mexico on critical infrastructure — infrastructure that isn’t a wall to keep the countries apart but rather pipelines or deals that would bind them closer together.
That stands in contrast not only to recent threats by President Donald Trump to shut down the border but some existing water projects. The haughtily named All-American Canal, for instance, was designed to deliver water from the Colorado River to Imperial without crossing into Mexico.
Right now, the Mexican government is, on paper, more prepared to deal with a shortage on the Colorado River than the United States. In fall 2017, Mexico agreed to a new river-sharing deal with the United States, provided that states in the U.S. could work out a similar deal among themselves. So far, after years of talk, several American states have agreed to a deal but have not yet signed one. They are now waiting on Congress.
But that deal involves sharing water that already exists in the river. In the meantime, U.S. officials are eyeing new sources of water.
Landlocked Arizona, for instance, has been looking to build an ocean water desalination plant in either California or Mexico.
Chuck Cullom, a senior water official in Arizona, said the California option was dismissed after Arizona learned about the regulatory demands of the California Coastal Commission, which would need to bless any desalination plant. During a recent forum on Colorado River issues in Phoenix, Cullom said Arizona figured that California “would not be a safe place” once officials there learned more about the commission’s stringent regulations.
So they’re turning to Mexico. This is not a new idea. The Otay Water District in southeast San Diego has long been trying to work with developers on a desalination plant in Rosarito, a beach town south of Tijuana. For now, though, the Otay part of the project is on hold.
Arizona may not have to build a pipeline to Mexico to get water. It could help pay for the project in Mexico that would free up water that could be used in the United States.
Others have been talking up a pipeline that would take water from the Gulf of California and sending it to farmers in Imperial County and to the Salton Sea, the lake in Imperial that’s shrinking because there’s less water running off farms.
Pat Mulroy, the former head of Las Vegas’s water agency, has been talking about that idea, which would also involve building a desalination plant somewhere to make the salty water from the gulf usable.
Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the Audubon Society, said there would be so much salt it would take hundreds of train cars, or thousands of trucks, a day to remove the salt from Imperial County. Pitt is among those who argue that conservation is a better way to free up water than a pie-in-the-sky multibillion-dollar plan.
But Mulroy argues the region needs a major new project to add water to a failing system and that going house to house and farm to farm across the West to conserve more water isn’t enough.
“A million little nickel-and-dime projects won’t work,” she said.
Disclosure: The nonprofit Lincoln Institute of Land Policy paid for my travel to the forum in Phoenix mentioned above.
Not Just Water but Dust Problems in Tijuana River Valley?
For decades, U.S. officials have complained about sewage coming across the border through the Tijuana River and closing beaches, particularly in Imperial Beach. Now, they are worried what that water left behind in the dirt.
David Gibson, executive director of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, wants a study of the health effects of dust in the river valley.
Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection warned the water quality board about dust issues posing “operational and health risks” to people in the area, particularly Border Patrol agents.
Gibson said he’s heard about the potential dust problems from others.
“We have also heard concerns from the people working and recreating in the valley that the sediment and dust could be causing health problems, but we don’t have any data or analysis on that question,” he said in an email. “It is one of the reasons that I am requesting a health effects study; we simply don’t have enough objective analysis.”
SoCalGas vs. SoCal Edison
Southern California Gas Co., the natural gas provider owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, is facing a seemingly old challenge to its core business: electricity.
The Los Angeles Times just did a thorough look at this battle.
For years, gas and power have somewhat peacefully coexisted because much of Southern California’s power came from burning gas. Now, though, environmentalists and lawmakers are pushing for all of the state’s power to be generated without burning gas.
The city of San Diego, for instance, is planning to create its own power-buying agency so it can distance itself from Sempra’s other local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, which sells both power and gas.
But in a future where power is green, there will be pressure to electrify more and more household appliances, like water heaters and stoves. Power companies like Southern California Edison can get more business that way, but SoCalGas would get less. That’s why the gas giant is trying to pitch customers and regulators on the idea of “renewable” gas.
Disclosure: SDG&E vice president for government affairs Mitch Mitchell is a member of the VOSD board of directors