Together with Tijuana and fast growing coastal towns dependent on the Colorado River, Baja California needs to find new water resources.
Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid’s administration has offered a solution: Construct the biggest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, enough to ensure a supply for decades to come.
But plans for its reverse-osmosis centre a job that at full potential would desalinate 100 million gallons each day, in Rosarito Beach, have come in a moment that was politically sensitive. The most touchy issue is the question of whether some of that water will be sold in San Diego County to the Otay Water District.
More than a year after the signing of a public-private-partnership contract between Baja California and an global consortium to design and construct the plant and operate it for 37 years, there are growing calls for at least a pause — if not a halt — to the procedure.
Once it is built some wonder whether a huge plant is essential, and warn of increases in water rates. Others accuse of secretly planning to market a few of the water to the United 17, the state.
Others say the nation’s biggest need is not the desalination plant — but to get a broad and open public discussion about the issues of water use and ensuring a supply for future generations.
“We’re discussing the future, we’re talking about water, we’re speaking about the fact that the shore of Baja California cannot only rely on the Colorado River,” said Carlos de la Parra, a water expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based think tank. “This desalination plant is from thin air.”
Kurt Honold, president of the influential Tijuana business coalition Consejo Coordinador Empresarial, said, “We need to be a better administrator of this water that we already have … we are not utilizing the water economically, we have a big bucket and the bucket has holes.”
As the Baja California legislature prepares to get a vote on alterations to the public-private-partnership law of the state, the problem came to a head.
A no vote would at the very least delay the infrastructure project of Vega’s administration, the plant. It would also put on hold eight other jobs.
“There’s no greater proposal,” said Manuel Guevara, Baja California’s secretary of infrastructure and the administration’s point-person about the Rosarito desalination job. “In actuality, there is not any other suggestion in any way. There’s been no suggestion from any other group, any room, any legislator that is different from ours, but for the size.”
Much like San Diego County, the state of Baja California is largely determined by the Colorado River for its major cities, Tijuana and Mexicali, its biggest region, and the Mexicali Valley.
Population expansion and calls for greater efficiency in finding alternative sources as well as handling the water supply, also drought around the river have prompted growing concern.
Next month, the state of Baja California plans to launch its first utility-scale ocean desalination plant in the port of Ensenada, a reverse osmosis facility able to create 5.7 million gallons each day. Another plant is being planned from the agricultural community of San Quintin, the first project approved under the nation’s public-private-partnership law that has been passed in 2014.
However, the biggest is the Rosarito Beach centre whose price is estimated at greater than $470 million. At full capacity, it would be the size of this Poseidon plant in Carlsbad, sufficient to provide the demands of 2 million people.
Baja California officials today are denying their aim at this time is currently ensuring a water supply for residents of the nation’s fast-growing Pacific areas that are urban.
“We’re can not lose sight of the main eyesight, which will be ensuring the water supply not only for two or three years, as well as ten,” said Guevara, the Baja California secretary who leading the desalination efforts. “This is a vision for 20 or 40 years.”
The project is under review by the North American Development Bank (NADB), a binational institution that assesses and financing border infrastructure projects. “We believe in the necessity of this job by a water availability standpoint,” said Jesse Hereford, a bank spokesman. He said in an email that NADB “is a portion of the banking syndicate that’s looking at funding the project.”
The idea of a cross-border desalination project predates Gov. Vega’s administration by some two decades. A groundbreaking arrangement in 2012 involving Mexico and the United States — known as Minute 319 — recorded a desalination plant to the region in Rosarito Beach as a new source of water.
Nevertheless, it was only in August 2016, together with the contract that a definite plan moved forward. The winning bidder, Aguas de Rosarito, combined together NSC Agua, a company that’s the subsidiary of a Cayman Islands-based firm together with two partners: NuWater of Singapore and the company Degremont.
The agreement committed the consortium to construct the plant in two phases before turning it over to the 25, and operate it. Launching in late 2019 or 2020, and the initial stage was to create 50 million gallons each day as envisioned in the agreement; the capacity would double to 100 million.
“We don’t need such a large desalination plant,” said Ruben Garcia Fons, an engineer who has experience in water problems. He belongs to a team, COMICE, made up of planners, professors, builders and providers, which has recently gathered against the project. The selection procedure has been an “obscure process,” he said. “And those who will pay are those citizens using the water.”
The contract states Baja California would be responsible for distributing the water, and a lot of this controversy over the plant revolves on whether the state intends to send a number of that water across the border.
A state legislator with the resistance Social Encounter Party, Luis Moreno, has been one of the critics. The state government, “is operating behind the rear of its citizens,” and “is trying to gain Consolidated Water and its partners,” Moreno said in a news release earlier this month.
North of the border, the Otay Water District, which serves several 220,000 water users in northeast San Diego County, started discussing the proposal with Consolidated Water years before Gov. Vega occurred in 2013.
The district has been looking to diversify its water supply, also has spent over $4 million exploring the possibility of importing water. Last May, the U.S. State Department declared a presidential license to carry a number of that water across the border at Otay Mesa.
The general manager of the district, Mark Watton, said he has discussed the program with Baja California’s secretary of economic growth, Carlo Bonfante, however, received no warranties. “It had been speculative in the get-go,” Watton said. “It is reasonable that Mexico would export water as a final manufactured product like they do other stuff, but the politics are wrapped around the axle at this time.”
The secretary of infrastructure, Guevara, said Bonfante is not the only one to negotiate deals, and will make no commitments. Guevera said it’d be up to himself and water agencies. “I have had no talks with Otay Water,” he said.
To proceed with the Rosarito desalination plant and other public-private partnerships, Gov. Vega’s administration should persuade 17 legislators to approve the changes.
Guevara remains optimistic that the state government will prevail and the job will proceed. But if the vote is not any, “I’d recommend suspending it, until we’re at a far better economic and political moment,” he said. With time, “we’ll demonstrate that we’re facing a water crisis.”