Lawmakers object to desal process, can’t do anything about it

Lawmakers object to desal process, can’t do anything about it

: A fleet of shrimp boats are docked at a marina in Puerto Penasco, Mexico along the Sea of Cortez. Lawmakers are unhappy about the speed with which a planned desalination plant that will pump water from the Sea of Cortez to Arizona is moving and they also complained about the lack of transparency in the process. DEPOSIT PHOTOS

Lawmakers grilled representatives of the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority and a company that wants to build a desalination plant in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico on Tuesday over a proposal they say was not handled transparently.  

Unfortunately for the disgruntled lawmakers, the bill they wrote last session expanding WIFA’s power does not give lawmakers the authority to stand in the way of the proposed project. 

Earlier in the day WIFA approved a resolution directing the board chairman and staff to begin discussions with IDE Technologies, an Israeli company aiming to build a desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez and pipe the clean water into Arizona and other Mexican cities. 

Legislators met for three hours after the meeting to ask questions and express their dissatisfaction.  

Lisa Otondo

Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, was the most vocal with her frustration and said that even if she was out of line, she wanted to say that this project doesn’t need to happen “before the current officer is out of office,” referring to Gov. Doug Ducey’s desire to get the ball rolling on desalination before he leaves office. Otondo added that as a lawmaker from rural Arizona who’s worked on water policy for a decade, she understands the importance of securing clean water, but asked the speakers not to try and tell her that this needs to happen by January 5. 

Republican consultant Kirk Adams, a past Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives and former Ducey Chief of Staff, huddled with the IDE team prior to the start of the WIFA board meeting. Adams has worked as a consultant on water for Ducey. Otondo asked him about his relationship with IDE. Adams said he has a contract with Consilium Consulting, and they are working with IDE. An Arizona Capitol Times reporter requested communications between Ducey and IDE in March and never received them. Ducey and IDE have seemingly communicated on the desalination idea for some time. 

Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Andres Cano, D-Phoenix, also made it clear that the deal felt like it involved backroom deals. Bowers – who earlier acknowledged that he signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement with IDE – said that he loves backroom deals, “especially when they don’t happen.” 

Cano said he hasn’t heard much of anything from WIFA since the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1740 last session, greatly expanding the agency’s powers and funding. 

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, pointed out to WIFA representative Brett Johnson, how someone might raise questions about the process.  

“Can you see how individuals will believe there’s backroom deals if there are potential companies that are coming to Arizona, they need a water solution, a water company then decides to put forth a proposal at the same time, and then there’s also an expedited process?” Bolding asked. 

Johnson said that although it’s going fast, the process has been very transparent, and all the proposal information is publicly available – if people submit a public records request to get it. The Arizona Capitol Times submitted a request for the IDE proposal last week and did not receive it. Cano said he hasn’t received it either. 

Erez Hoter Ishay, an IDE representative, said the company has had multiple discussions with Mexico and received positive feedback from Mexican officials. He said IDE met with Sonora Governor Alfonso Durazo in July. 

Cano asked if the Mexican government signed onto any resolution showing their support for the project and Ishay said IDE hasn’t asked for that yet. 

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said that he’s never signed an NDA with IDE and that none of the Mexicans he works with have heard anything about the IDE proposal. Buschatzke is the U.S. representative to the Binational Desalination Work Group that aims to explore desalination with Mexico. 

Going forward, legislators said they’re disappointed in the way the process has been going and would like to have a seat at the table. They did not say the proposal is a bad idea and Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, and Otondo agreed that “it could be the best thing since sliced bread,” but they don’t want WIFA to commit taxpayer dollars before all the best options are explored. 

Yellow Sheet Editor Wayne Schutsky contributed to this report