Local Opinion: Gov. Ducey’s Salty Folly

Gary Paul Nabhan Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey — once known as the most fiscally-conservative of all border state governors —proposed earmarking a billion dollars to remove the salt from sea water of the Gulf of California to bring into the Colorado River basin. This is an acknowledgement that the seven-state Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado did not work out as expected. Its weak measures could not stop Tier One water rationing in Nevada and Arizona.

Ducey’s proposal came on Jan. 10 and state legislators are planning to release new legislation to deal with Arizona’s water supplies.

Arizona must now endure its worst-ever water shortage. But that is not merely due to drought within its borders, but throughout its entire watershed, prompting a 512,000 acre-foot reduction in the state’s river water allotments and accelerating depletion of its groundwater reserves. The enforced water rationing resulting from this shortage will immediately cost the Arizona economy 500 jobs and $100 million in reduced farm income.

Worse yet, Western water reserves in 1,500 counties in the Colorado, and other basins are drying faster than predicted, with over 640 agricultural counties declared drought disaster areas over the last year. There is no place else in the U.S. from which to transfer water, so Ducey looked south across the border. But he is ignoring that the 1982 Law of the Sea now ratified by 150 countries, as well as Mexican and First Nations sovereignty concerns.

Ducey seems unaware that many Mexicans would see this “water grab” much like the “land grab” that occurred in 1848, when Mexico was forced by the United States to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding half of its lands to its greedy neighbor to the north. That land grab was followed by six attempts by insurgents from California, Arizona and France to build U.S. ports from some of the same harbors that Ducey now wants to pipe water from.

Memories of assaults on Mexican sovereignty die hard in Sonora. Having any seawater pipeline cross the homelands of the Tohono O’odham or Cucupa might also be considered a violation of their sovereignty, since the ocean is sacred to them.

Worse yet, the 2020 “Project Execution Plan” for transborder transfer of seawater prepared by engineers reads like a boondoggle pitch from the era prior to the Environmental Protection Act. It includes no environmental impact assessment. That nearly any pipeline route would have to cross one or perhaps two of Mexico’s prized biosphere reserves- — the Sierra el Pinacate and Colorado River delta protected areas — is never mentioned in the study.

The other options that the governor has ignored make more sense to many Arizonans. They focus on ways to live within their state’s God-given water budget, rather than usurping water from hundreds of miles away.

First, we can reduce the costly waste of water associated with furrow irrigation by retrofitting farms with low-cost, low-tech micro-irrigation strategies to trim water use by as much as 90%. If 10,000 of Arizona’s irrigation farmers received incentives to retrofit their operations to hyper-efficient irrigation technologies, that would be better investment than $1 billion for his pipeline.

Secondly, we can invest in drought-, salt- and heat-adapted rootstocks, seed stocks and low-chill fruit trees that can better tolerate both heat waves and periodic drought. To make these more accessible to farmers — especially hardy rootstock from crop wild relatives — Arizona should invest in a new initiative, a Southwest Adaptation Center for Desert Agriculture and Climate Resilience (SAC). Within a decade that investment would provide farmers on both sides of the border with far more climate-resilient crop options than what they utilize today.

For half of his billion-dollar proposal, the governor could generate real solutions for his state’s food security than a saline slurry can offer.

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