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Bruce Babbitt: desalination is not the answer to Arizona’s water woes

Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt said desalination, which his successor Doug Ducey is currently touting as part of a billion-dollar water plan, is not the answer to Arizona’s water problems, at least not for many years to come. 

Babbitt, who negotiated the Arizona Groundwater Management Act in 1980 and is a senior adviser on water issues at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, called for a long-term solution to groundwater issues during a press conference at the Arizona Capitol on Tuesday. While the historic law he signed 42 years ago regulates groundwater use in the Phoenix and Tucson areas and other limited regions of the state, a solution is still needed in most of rural Arizona. 

“Desalination will not be an answer to Arizona’s water crisis in the next generation,” Babbitt said when asked about the issue.

The reason, he said, is one of cost for agricultural producers. He pointed to the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant near San Diego, which provides drinking water for the city. The plant currently sells water for $2,725 per acre-foot, which is about 326,000 gallons. Babbitt said the maximum, sustainable cost agricultural producers could afford to pay, according to estimates from the Central Arizona Project, is less than $200 per acre-foot. CAP charges most users $155 per acre-foot under its current rate schedule.

Desalination could be a solution to Arizona’s water problems in the future as technology changes, said Babbitt, who spent eight years as U.S. interior secretary under President Bill Clinton. 

But it’s not a viable solution for now. 

“We need people to understand, it isn’t going to help us out of our present crisis. We can get through this if we manage what we’ve got,” Babbitt said. 

Ducey’s budget plan calls for the state to spend $1.16 billion on water augmentation over the next three years — one-third this year and one-third apiece in each of the next two years, after he leaves office. In his State of the State address in January, the governor promoted the idea of a desalination on the Gulf of California that would provide water to Arizona, and that is expected to be part of his water plan, most of the details of which he hasn’t yet released. 

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A $1 billion investment would likely only cover about 20% of the cost of a desalination plant, The Associated Press reported

Ducey still views desalination as a contemporary solution, spokesman C.J. Karamargin told the Arizona Mirror. The technology has come a long way, Karamargin said, and, as Babbitt noted, it’s constantly evolving. 

“There is no better time to start thinking about the future than now. We have the money. We have the expertise. The time is now,” Karamargin said. 

Karamargin said Ducey will release the details of his water plan “imminently.” He said the plan will include more than just desalination — about $300 million of his plan is already earmarked for other water augmentation projects — and described the pending proposal as an “all-of-the-above strategy.”

Babbitt was at the Capitol to help Rep. Regina Cobb promote legislation she’s sponsoring, House Bill 2661, which would allow for the creation of rural management areas, or RMAs, to regulate groundwater use in rural parts of the state. 

Cobb, a Kingman Republican, said Ducey’s billion-dollar plan is a great start, but it’s not enough. 

“We are one of the best states in the United States as far as conservation goes. But this year and last year and the year prior to that, our growth in Arizona is enormous,” she said. 

The call for new groundwater plans comes at a dire time for Arizona. Researchers estimate that the southwestern United States is currently experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Jeremy Duda/Arizona Mirror

Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor and U.S. interior secretary, speaks during a press conference at the Arizona Capitol on Feb. 22, 2022, flanked by Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, and Mohave County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter.