The cooperative measures on Colorado River water that the United States and Mexico agreed to in September – an agreement described, collectively, as “Minute 323” – have garnered a lot of media attention in the weeks since the documents were signed.
Most of the attention has been directed at Minute 323’s complex shortfall-sharing agreements, including the establishment of ground rules for how the two countries will share both shortfalls and excess of water deliveries on the river. The terms of that agreement run through 2026.
The public reaction has been positive. The Arizona Republic observed in a September 27 editorial that Minute 323 agreement extension between the two countries “provides a powerful incentive for Arizona, California and Nevada to finish a much-needed Drought Contingency Plan for the region.”
The Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, is the agreement among the three Lower Basin Colorado River states to share in water-delivery cutbacks should Lake Mead fall below critical levels. It is still under negotiation.
There is one aspect of Minute 323, however, that largely has escaped media attention, yet could prove to be as significant as anything in the agreement: the agreement between the two nations to pursue “new water sources,” especially desalination opportunities.
The agreement called for the countries to “continue to evaluate all pertinent aspects” of proposed desalination plant concepts in three locations: on the Pacific Ocean coast; in the Sea of Cortez; and, one other location near Mexicali in Baja California.
The signatories of Minute 323 (the members of the International Boundary and Water Commission) recommended that the Binational Projects Work Group continue evaluating the three prospective desalination-plant locations for their potential for generating fresh water, their likely costs and distribution between the two countries, and other benefits.
Notably, the commissioners recommended following up on work already done by the Arizona-Mexico Commission on the potential for a desal plant near the Sea of Cortez. A new “Binational Desalination Work Group” is expected to develop the scope of work for a binational investigation of a plant at the Sea of Cortez site within six months.
As reported by Water Deeply – an online publication that closely follows California-related water issues – U.S. stakeholders “agreed to invest $31 million in Mexican water conservation and development projects” upon the signing of Minute 323. Those investment commitments include a variety of water-use efficiency upgrades to be built in Mexico.
The Minute 323 binational investigations of desalination opportunities are not the only ones on the table.
The Desalination Committee of Gov. Ducey’s Water Augmentation Council has been focusing on brackish groundwater desalination. The panel is evaluating three general areas for potential for brackish groundwater desal project: the Yuma Groundwater Mound, the West Salt River Valley in the Buckeye area and a site in the Leupp-Winslow area.