The Colorado River’s precipitous decline pushed Arizona lawmakers to deliver Gov. Doug Ducey’s $1 billion water augmentation fund — and then some — late Friday, their final night in session.
Before the votes, the growing urgency for addressing the state’s oncoming water shortage and the long timeline for approving and building new water projects nearly sank the legislation. Just over a week after the federal government warned that the seven states that use the Colorado must make major new cutbacks by next year, Democrats held out until they got an additional $200 million commitment for water conservation, which they argued could help Arizonans much faster than the costlier seawater desalination plan that the governor has touted. Some of the water importation schemes that had been discussed would require multiple billions of dollars and interstate or international partnerships, making this three-year investment effectively a fund for down payments for big-ticket pipes or treatment plants. The water conservation measures, such as grants to help cities reduce turf grass, could be cheaper…
One after another, a bipartisan stream of legislators picked up a microphone in a two-day blitz for the package to say that spending to plug the emerging holes in Arizona’s water supply was critical to the state’s future. They eventually passed it as Senate Bill 1740 with just one dissenter in each chamber.
The Bureau of Reclamation today [June 1, 2022] restarted operations of the Paradox Valley Unit (PVU), a crucial salinity control facility for the Colorado River system. For the next six months, the PVU will operate at a reduced capacity to gather data that will help guide future operational decisions.
Located in a remote area of western Colorado, along the Dolores River in Montrose County, the PVU removes an average of 95,000 tons of salt annually from the Dolores and Colorado rivers. It does this by extracting brine groundwater in the Paradox Valley and injecting it into a deep injection well, thereby preventing it from entering the Dolores River, which is a major tributary of the Colorado River. Saline concentrations of this naturally occurring brine groundwater have measured in excess of 250,000 milligrams per liter—about eight times saltier than seawater—and have contributed up to 200,000 tons of salt per year to the Colorado River system.
Prior to the restart, the Paradox injection well had been shut down since March 2019, when a 4.5 magnitude earthquake was recorded at the site. Though there was no damage to the well or surrounding area, injection was suspended to model injection formation pressure, monitor and analyze seismic activity, and to perform a seismic hazard analysis to ensure safe operation. Reclamation has determined that seismic activity at the site has significantly decreased and that resuming operations at a reduced rate under close watch is acceptable.
“The safety of our personnel and that of the community is our primary concern,” said Upper Colorado Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “After ceasing operations of the unit and thorough inspections, we want to ensure the community that we are ready to test the site by operating the unit at a reduced capacity for continued evaluation and assessment.”
The six-month-long operational test will consist of injecting brine groundwater into the 16,000-foot-deep well at a reduced rate of 115 gallons per minute, which is 67% of past operations. Modeling indicates that this reduced rate will have a negligible impact on seismicity and Reclamation will closely monitor the injection pressure and seismic response. If any unfavorable conditions develop, such as increased magnitudes in seismicity, operation will be suspended until it is deemed safe to continue.
“The injection test results will be used to evaluate well conditions and help Reclamation create a plan for potential future injection operations,” said Western Colorado Area Office Manager Ed Warner. “A seismic risk analysis will be completed in 2023 and an operations plan may be developed, based upon the injection test results.”
The PVU started operations in 1996 and provides substantial benefits, up to $23 million annually, including improved water quality, increased life of municipal and industrial infrastructure, and increased crop yields for all downstream water users in the Colorado River Basin.
The Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum meeting was held May 11, where the Basin states participated in discussion and coordination regarding PVU operations, seismic risk analysis, and post-EIS direction, to include the start of this six-month injection well test.
For more information about the PVU, visit our website.
Click the link to read “Reclamation resumes salt-water injection at reduced level as it evaluates seismic threat” on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:
The agency’s Paradox Valley Unit has been used for decades to help keep salt from reaching the Dolores River, and ultimately the Colorado River. Salinity in the Colorado River watershed harms water quality, impacts municipal and industrial infrastructure and impairs crop yields within the river basin. The Bureau of Reclamation facility extracts brine groundwater in the Paradox Valley and injects it into a 16,000-foot-deep well, keeping it from reaching the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River.
The groundwater has been measured to be about eight times saltier than seawater, with saline concentrations exceeding 250,000 milligrams per liter, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. It estimates that its project has kept an average of about 95,000 tons of salt a year from reaching the rivers through operation of the injection well from 1996, when operations started, through 2019. This has resulted in up to $23 million in annual benefits by reducing river salinity and its impacts. The wastewater injection has a drawback, however, in that it induces seismic activity that has worsened over the years. In March 2019 a magnitude 4.5 associated with the facility was felt as far away as Grand Junction and Moab. It was the largest quake that has been linked to the injection well.
Following that quake, the Bureau of Reclamation suspended operations at the well for more than a year before briefly resuming them on a test basis. It also considered alternative salinity control measures in the Paradox Valley, including drilling and operating a new well at one of two new locations, using evaporation ponds, or building a plant to heat the brine to crystallize and remove the salt. But it ultimately decided against pursuing any of those due to concerns about things such as cost and potential aesthetic and wildlife impacts.
In March, Congress passed and President Biden signed a federal spending bill that will fund the government through September 30, 2022. Overall, the funding is a win for conservation and provides helpful increases for programs that address climate change, build community resilience, and protect birds and wildlife. Compared with four years of drastic funding cuts implemented from 2016-2020, this bill sets the stage for a positive trend in federal funding for the environment.
One bright spot is the (at least) $1.25 million included for Saline Lakes science, a key Audubon priority. In addition to this startup funding, Audubon is hopeful that Congress works to pass the bipartisan Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act and additional appropriations for this critical assessment and monitoring program.
For the Colorado River, the spending bill is a bit of a mixed bag. The Cooperative Watershed Management Program received only $5 million, which is a slight increase over the $4.25 million it received last year, but far below our request of $20 million. However, this program received a huge boost in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—$200 million over five years. And the relatively new Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program received only $100,000 in Fiscal Year (FY)22, but will benefit from $250 million over five years in IIJA funding. These programs fund multi-benefit projects that support rivers, wetlands, communities, and water users and we are hopeful they continue to receive additional funding in future years. Audubon urges Congress to continue boosting annual funding for programs like these. Coupled with the historic amounts of funding in the IIJA, the river is receiving an influx of funding over the next few years to address the ongoing drought and water challenges.
We were also pleased to see that funding for the operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant was prohibited by the omnibus bill. Audubon remains opposed to the operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant, and encourages Congress to continue prohibiting appropriations for this purpose, as it would decimate irreplaceable bird habitat in the Colorado River Delta, particularly in the Ciénega de Santa Clara. And, the Lower Colorado River Basin received $25 million to implement the Drought Contingency Plans (DCP); this critical funding is in addition to $250 million in the IIJA, pointing to ongoing interest in ensuring these plans are implemented effectively.
For the Department of Agriculture, several important conservation programs were fully funded (meaning they received no cuts)—these include the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). RCPP promotes innovative regional approaches to improve the health of working landscapes and rivers with partner-driven, multi-benefit projects. EQIP promotes the voluntary application of land use practices to maintain or improve the condition of natural resources, including grassland health, water quality, and wildlife habitat. Both of these helps support overall watershed health and build the resilience of these ecosystems.
Finally, the FY22 spending bill included Congressionally Directed Spending projects (previously known as earmarks) for the first time in many years. Audubon supported numerous project requests, and was pleased to see $2.546 million for a Salton Sea Research Project, secured by Representative Vargas. And, Representative Stanton secured $1.841 million for the Tres Rios project in Arizona, which Audubon also supported.
Audubon looks forward to the implementation of this funding for on-the-ground conservation activities, habitat restoration projects, and community resilience efforts. Federal dollars are critical to addressing climate change and the ongoing Western drought and aridification. Protecting watersheds protects people and birds, particularly in the West.
Looking ahead, President Biden released his FY23 budget on March 28, which initiated the appropriations process for the rest of this fiscal year. While the budget is only a statement of priorities and Congress will decide the actual spending amounts, Audubon was pleased to see investments for clean energy research, a civilian conservation corps, and equity initiatives to help historically marginalized communities.
The budget appropriates $1.4 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the West’s major waterways. This funding would include $2.254 million for the Cooperative Watershed Management Program and $500,000 for the Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program. Audubon urges Congress to fully fund these programs at $20 million and $15 million, respectively. Audubon also supports a full $5 million for the Saline Lakes science program at USGS, to build upon the initial investment made last year. We will be working with our partners to support other conservation programs and projects for FY23, and help continue this positive trend in funding.
Audubon urges the Administration and Congress to continue increasing funding amounts for programs that restore habitat, build community resilience, combat climate change and its devastating effects, and protect the places that people and birds need.
The High Line Canal Conservancy spent the last five years developing a plan to preserve their unique and popular recreation area.
They privately raised $4 million, and they plan on raising much more to make their 15-year plan successful.
With fewer [diverters along] the canal for irrigation in recent years, Denver Water is planning to switch gears and use it for stormwater.
Highlights of the plan include easier trail access, uniform signage, tree care, and safer crossings, which provides for building a couple of new underpasses for the trail.
On Saturday, they unveiled this plan publicly for the first time.
“This plan is just a critical piece,” Conservancy Executive Director Harriet LaMair said. “It’s a guideline for all the local governments for how they can commit dollars, and we can raise private dollars for this canal.”
After decades of slow progress, desalination is increasingly being used to provide drinking water around the globe. Costs for processing salt water for drinking water have dropped, but it remains an expensive option and one that creates environmental problems that must be addressed.
It’s been a long time coming for desalination — de-sal for short. For decades, we have been told it would one day turn oceans of salt water into fresh and quench the world’s thirst. But progress has been slow.
That is now changing, as desalination is coming into play in many places around the world. Several factors are converging to bring new plants on line. Population has boomed in many water-stressed places, including parts of China, India, South Africa and the United States, especially in Arizona and California. In addition, drought — some of it driven by a changing climate – is occurring in many regions that not that long ago thought their supplies were ample.
San Diego is one of those places. With just 12 inches of rain a year in the Mediterranean climate of Southern California and no groundwater, the region gets half of its water from the distant Colorado River. The amount of snow that falls in the Rocky Mountains and keeps that mighty river flowing, however, has greatly diminished over the last two decades and according to some researchers may be part of a permanent aridification of the West. Climate change is a very real phenomenon for water managers throughout the Southwest and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the cost of desalinated water has been coming down as the technology evolves and the cost of other sources increases. In the last three decades, the cost of desalination has dropped by more than half.
A boom in de-sal, though, doesn’t mean that everywhere with access to the sea has found a new source of fresh water. Circumstances play a large role. “As populations increase and existing surface water supplies are being tapped out or groundwater is depleted or polluted, then the problems are acute and there are choices to be made” about de-sal, said Michael Kiparsky of the Wheeler Water Institute at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. “There are places around the world where de-sal makes economic sense, where there is high pressure on the water resources plus a lot of available energy resources,” such as the Middle East.
De-sal proponents acknowledge the industry must confront and solve some serious environmental issues if it is to continue to grow. Desalination requires vast amounts of energy, which in some places is currently provided by fossil fuels. Kiparsky warns of a feedback loop where more de-sal is needed as the planet warms, which leads to more greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, there are serious concerns about the damage to marine life from the plant’s intake systems and extra-salty wastewater.
Click here to read the paper. Here’s the abstract:
Rising water demands and diminishing water supplies are exacerbating water scarcity in most world regions. Conventional approaches relying on rainfall and river runoff in water scarce areas are no longer sufficient to meet human demands. Unconventional water resources, such as desalinated water, are expected to play a key role in narrowing the water demand-supply gap. Our synthesis of desalination data suggests that there are 15,906 operational desalination plants producing around 95 million m3/day of desalinated water for human use, of which 48% is produced in the Middle East and North Africa region. A major challenge associated with desalination technologies is the production of a typically hypersaline concentrate (termed ‘brine’) discharge that requires disposal, which is both costly and associated with negative environmental impacts. Our estimates reveal brine production to be around 142 million m3/day, approximately 50% greater than previous quantifications. Brine production in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar accounts for 55% of the total global share. Improved brine management strategies are required to limit the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost of disposal, thereby stimulating further developments in desalination facilities to safeguard water supplies for current and future generations.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
The Bureau of Reclamation has announced the availability of funding for research and laboratory studies, pilot scale projects, and demonstration scale projects in desalination and water purification. Reclamation anticipates awarding a total of up to $1 million under this funding opportunity announcement.
The funding is being made available by the Desalination and Water Purification Research and Development Program. Through this program, Reclamation is partnering with private industry, universities, water utilities, and others to address a broad range of desalting and water purification needs.
The program has three major goals. The first goal is to augment the supply of usable water in the United States. Second, it is to understand the environmental impacts of desalination and develop approaches to minimize these impacts relative to other water supply alternatives. The third goal is to develop approaches to lower the financial costs of desalination so that it is an attractive option relative to other alternatives in locations where traditional sources of water are inadequate.
Eligible applicants that may submit proposals include individuals, institutions of higher education, commercial or industrial organizations, private entities, state and local governments, and Indian tribal governments. Foreign entities, other than the United States-Mexico binational research foundations and inter-university research programs established by the two countries, are not eligible for funding.
Reclamation will make up to $150,000 available for each research and laboratory study for a duration of 13 month, $200,000 a year for each pilot scale project for a duration of up to 25 months, and $500,000 a year for each demonstration scale project for a duration of up to 37 months.
The Desalination and Water Purification Research and Development Grant Funding Opportunity, posted on May 21 at grants.gov, can be found by searching Funding Opportunity Number R10SF80251. The deadline for applications is Tuesday, July 7, 2010 at 3:00 p.m. MDT.
It is anticipated that awards will be made in September 2010, with an anticipated project start date on or around October 1, 2010.