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State water official: Desalination an expensive but necessary prospect for AZ

Desalinating ocean water is an expensive prospect but something Arizona must look toward in addressing population growth and increasingly dry weather brought on by climate change, a state official told lawmakers Jan. 21.

“As we plan for the future, we must plan for the eventuality that we must look at these kinds of future water supplies for parts of our state,” said Karen Smith, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

She addressed the House Water and Agriculture Committee, which later approved a bill to continue the agency.

Smith said officials are looking, among other options, at partnerships with states to fund desalination plants in California or Mexico under agreements that would allow Arizona and its partners to draw more water from the Colorado River.

She said officials also are looking at desalinating brackish water in aquifers to help assure long-term water supplies. That becomes more feasible as desalination becomes more affordable, but Smith said she doesn’t want to appear overly optimistic about the ease of developing new sources of water.

“It will be a finite amount, and it will be very, very expensive,” Smith said. “But when you don’t have enough, and when you don’t have any, having expensive water is better than having no water at all.”

Rep. Daniel Patterson, a Tucson Democrat, recommended that Smith’s agency also focus on conservation through capturing rainwater and other means. He said he worries about how much making salty water drinkable would cost Arizona residents.

“I’m very concerned about the effects on middle class families, on people who need water to survive,” Patterson said.

Smith said promoting conservation is a big part of her agency’s agenda.

“The best water for the future is the gallon or the acre foot of water we save today,” she said.

In response to Gov. Jan Brewer’s call for the Department of Water Resources to become self-sustaining, Smith said officials are exploring the idea of a water use assessment of perhaps one or two cents per thousand gallons of water sold. That assessment, applied equitably across all types of water users, would be enough to raise the $18 million to $20 million required to make the agency’s operations fully self-funded, she said.

In addition, Smith said her agency is looking at raising permit fees for groups such as developers, water providers and well drillers to cover the true cost of providing those services. She noted that permit fees have remained the same for two decades.

Looking toward the future of Arizona’s water supply, Smith said many challenges remain. For example, she said, the state allows property owners to mine ground water down to 1,000 feet.

“When we get down to that level we don’t know what will be there for our grandchildren,” she said. “It’s an issue.”

Smith noted that several areas of the state, including Payson, Sierra Vista and the Coconino Plateau, already need additional water supplies.

“As a state, we need to do much more planning relative to water augmentation and looking for new supplies for Arizona,” she said.

Finally, Smith said, Arizona needs to develop a strategy for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

“We have got to do a better job to have the technical information available to local jurisdictions and water suppliers so they can plan accordingly on what they’re going to see in terms of variability in water supply,” she said.


  1. Tell Obama to be a real hero and build a water line from the Missippi to the Colorado Rivers. Save them some serious flooding and help several SW states. We have a coal slurry line across Arizona – it could be done.

  2. Though desalination increasingly is touted by many in Arizona from academia, regulatory and water agencies of all size and description, unless we resolve those downside aspects associated with desalination what have we honestly gained…?

    Have we not only traded a headache for a stomachache…? There are a host of unresolved issues respecting significantly elevated saline levels and its affect when discharged into our single biosphere.

    But, perhaps as is our Arizona government’s current vogue and mantra, let’s believe we are solving a short term problem while ignoring its longer term negative implications … hey … we’re good at that

  3. Mr. Miller suggested desalination will somehow increase the salinity of the ocean. Doesn’t evaporation take pure water out of the ocean, leaving the salt behind, on a much more massive scale than man-made desalination?

    Nature, without any help from mankind, has already spent eons increasing the salinity of our biosphere’s oceans. I expect it will continue to do so long after we have leapt to the stars.

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