Yuma 'Boondoggle' May Prove Useful

By the time a government water-treatment plant was built in Yuma, Ariz., the extra water it created wasn't needed. Now, climate and population changes have prompted authorities to test the desalinization plant.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A government water treatment plant that's been called a boondoggle for decades may soon be a valuable resource instead. If you're wondering what's changed, it's the climate.

NPR's Ted Robbins explains from Yuma, Arizona.

TED ROBBINS: A lot of homeowners and bottled water suppliers use reverse osmosis filters to remove impurities from drinking water. At home, they are usually foot-long cylinders under the kitchen sink between the water line and the tap.

(Soundbite of running water)

ROBBINS: Well, imagine a building with 10,000 of those cylinders, each 20 feet long, stacked on their sides, and you'll have a picture of the Bureau of Reclamation's Yuma Desalting Plant. Jim Cherry manages there.

Mr. JIM CHERRY (Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, Yuma Desalting Plant): It's the largest plant in the United States and up until recently was the largest in the world.

ROBBINS: The Yuma Desalting Plant sits in Arizona, next to the Colorado River, where the river forms the border with California and Mexico. And it's been sitting there doing nothing for a long time.

Mr. CHERRY: This plant hasn't operated for 14 years. There hasn't been water in the pipes. The pumps haven't been operating.

ROBBINS: Here's why. The plant was built to supply Mexico with water lost after the U.S. dammed the Colorado River. The plan was to replace the Colorado River water with desalinated irrigation water. So the government spent about $250 million and took 18 years building the plant. By then, it wasn't needed. It was when the water levels in the river were high and plenty of water flowed naturally into Mexico. So the plant stayed on standby for $6 million a year.

(Soundbite of NBC News broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Now to our series of reports, the Fleecing of America...

ROBBINS: That's what made NBC and others back in 1995 call the Yuma Desalting Plant one of the nation's biggest boondoggles. But in the last decade the climate has changed.

Mr. CHERRY: It's a drought and they need to stretch the Colorado River as far as we might stretch it.

ROBBINS: The climate has changed and the Southwest's population growth has increased water demand.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

ROBBINS: So the plant is in the midst of a 90-day test at 10 percent of its capacity, and the folks here are eager to show visitors how it works. Spokesman Jack Simes and I climb up above tanks which removes sediment from the water.

Mr. JACK SIMES (Spokesman, Bureau of Reclamation Yuma Desalting Plant): And if you look down over, you'll see the buildup of that sediment.

ROBBINS: Right. So this is pre-treatment.

Mr. SIMES: This is pre-treatment. This is first step.

ROBBINS: It takes a number of steps from pre-treatment to the reverse osmosis to get the salt down to acceptable levels. Eventually, the test water flows out of the plant and into Mexico. But there's a huge irony here. In all those years that the plant was not operating and water flowed naturally through the desalting plant's bypass canal, the environment downstream blossomed. Karl Flessa is a University of Arizona conservation biologist.

Professor KARL FLESSA (Geosciences, University of Arizona): This slightly saline groundwater from the U.S. was deposited in Mexico and has created this fabulous wetland or fabulous wildlife refuge for migratory water fowl and several endangered species.

ROBBINS: The area is known as the Cienega de Santa Clara. It's nowhere near the sides of the original Colorado River Delta, one of the world's largest wetlands, which largely dried up when we started sucking up the river. But the Cienega de Santa Clara is still three times the size of Manhattan. Now Karl Flessa says it could be in danger.

Prof. FLESSA: When you desalt slightly salty water, you get two things after. You get product water, which is drinkable water or water you could use for irrigation very, very low salinity, but you also get a concentrated brine stream, water that's much, much higher in salinity than the water that the plant took in.

ROBBINS: It's that brine stream, that waste product which could kill the Cienega. Flessa and other scientists will monitor the effects of the test run on vegetation and future releases could be adjusted. Thanks to a thirsty population and years of drought, the boondoggle may actually become a boon.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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