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Panel discussing desalination in Mexico fails to include environmental impact, Mexican voices

ASU's Global Center for Water Technology held a panel on the feasibility of water importation from Mexico, sidestepping environmental concerns and Mexican representation


"The complexities of international transport were briefly mentioned, but were not the main focus of the panel."

On Oct. 24th, the ASU Global Center for Water Technology held a panel about water importation from the Sea of Cortés, highlighting technical feasibility but leaving large gaps related to environmental considerations and representation among its experts.

Paul Westerhoff is the director for the Global Center for Water Technology, which is one pillar of the larger Arizona Water Innovation Initiative. The AWII was started at ASU by a large state grant to generate interdisciplinary research and solutions for Arizona water concerns, and The Global Center’s role is to be the technical and economic arm of the AWII.

"Our job is to explore the technological solutions that exist, or aid in developing and creating new solutions to address the state water challenges," Westerhoff said.

One of these potential solutions is water desalination and importation from the Sea of Cortés, which is off the coast of Mexico and surrounded by the Baja California peninsula. Desalination is the process of removing salt from water, producing usable water and brine, which requires strict management to mitigate environmental effects.

The panel was prompted by a request for information coming from the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona, a government agency tasked with investing a $1 billion Long-Term Water Augmentation Fund. The Global Center for Water Technology reached out to act as a facilitator to host conversations and boost involvement.

In the panel, it was discussed that WIFA is hoping to make investment decisions by the end of 2024, an unusually short decision timeline for projects of this scale, according to Westerhoff.

This panel is just one part of a future series of ASU panels to discuss this potential effort. The event solely centered on technical feasibility, and for this reason, the four members of the panel had their backgrounds rooted firmly in engineering or business, often with a specialty in water. 

Notably, this panel did not include representatives from Mexico or any Mexican research entities. The complexities of international transport were briefly mentioned, but were not the main focus of the panel. When asked why no Mexican representatives were included, Westerhoff said the reason was to keep the panel small enough to fit a short time frame.

As discussed in the panel, desalination is a tested and achievable goal with large scale desalination plants built in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Dubai.  

"Desalinization is a mature technology from Israel to Singapore, and it's pretty young in the United States and very young in Mexico," Westerhoff said. "I think technologically, it's doable.”

However, technological capabilities are not where all the complications lie. High cost and environmental effects are additional concerns with the desalination plants, especially when the water has to be imported from a different country, across a protected UNESCO region.

These complications are discussed in reviews of similar water desalination plans, specifically in California. In September 2022, the final version of an independent panel review looked into a group of proposals that would have imported water from the Sea of Cortés to replenish the Salton Sea in California. 

The independent panel evaluated the proposals against a list of fatal flaws, said Brent M. Haddad, the principal investigator of the panel and professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz. Only several proposals could make it through, and even those were not strongly recommended.

"There was a subset of ideas that were importation proposals from the Sea of Cortés that the panel felt were technically feasible, but a bad idea," said Haddard. "Primary reason was the cost and the secondary reason was that even though it could avoid the major Ramsar wetland sites and other sites of critical ecological importance, they would still be very environmentally damaging."

While these proposals were specific to the Salton Sea region, they show the enormous financial and environmental considerations that are associated with water importation and desalination, even when the plans are technologically viable.

The disconnect between what is possible and what was recommended prompted Haddard and Robert Glennon, a law professor specializing in water policy from the University of Arizona, to write an op-ed in the Arizona Republic warning about the full consequences of water importation into Arizona. 

"We got the impression that the state and others had taken only half of the panel's advice," Haddard said. "They had taken the first part that water importation from the Sea of Cortés was feasible, but not the second part of the panel's finding that it was a bad idea. We thought it was important to be clear about what the panel had actually recommended, and that prompted our op-ed."

Despite this aspect being absent from the ASU panel, the panel series intends to include a wider debate on water importation. 

"We're not making recommendations. We're trying to play the role of an open facilitator," Westerhoff said. "We'll bring people from both sides, and there will be other people on future panels who do not think we should do this and their voice is going to be equally heard."

Some individuals believe that subsequent panels would benefit from representation from Mexico and from entities that would be affected by an environmental shock to the coast, specifically near one of the largest fisheries in Mexico, such as Jaime Chamberlain, president at Chamberlain Distributing Inc. The company is a fruits and vegetable importer between Mexico and the U.S.

"It was interesting that there was only participation by Americans or by Arizona, and it seems very strange to me," Chamberlain said. "It's just that there has been lots of talk about desalination of those waters and that conversation has not included international investors with Mexico."

Chamberlain received an invitation to view the panel but was unable to attend. He discussed that Arizona and Mexico are so economically interlinked that they should consider one another. 

The current panel has been clear about its priorities, solely discussing the economic and technical aspects of the issue. However, considering how multifaceted and complex the issue is, subsequent panels will have much to discuss.

Edited by River Graziano, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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