SAN DIEGO — Mexico ships televisions, cars, sugar and medical equipment to the United States. Soon, it may be sending water north.
Western states are looking south of the border for water to fill drinking glasses, flush toilets and sprinkle lawns, as four major U.S. water districts help plan one of two huge desalination plant proposals in Playas de Rosarito, about 15 miles south of San Diego. Combined, they would produce 150 million gallons a day, enough to supply more than 300,000 homes on both sides of the border.
The plants are one strategy by both countries to wean themselves from the drought-prone Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez. Decades of friction over the Colorado, in fact, are said to be a hurdle to current desalination negotiations.
The proposed plants have also sparked concerns that American water interests looking to Mexico are simply trying to dodge U.S. environmental reviews and legal challenges.
Desalination plants can blight coastal landscapes, sucking in and killing fish eggs and larvae. They require massive amounts of electricity and dump millions of gallons of brine back into the ocean that can, if not properly disposed, also be harmful to fish.
But desalination has helped quench demand in Australia, Saudi Arabia and other countries lacking fresh water....
Water agencies that supply much of Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tijuana, Mexico, are pursuing the plant that would produce 50 million gallons a day in Rosarito near an existing electricity plant. They commissioned a study last year that found no fatal flaws and ordered another one that will include a cost estimate, with an eye toward starting operations in three to five years.
Potential disagreements between the two countries include how the new water stores will be used.
The U.S. agencies want to consider helping pay for the plant and letting Mexico keep the water for booming areas of Tijuana and Rosarito. In exchange, Mexico would surrender some of its allotment from the Colorado River, sparing the cost of laying pipes from the plant to California.
Mexico would never give up water from the Colorado, which feeds seven western U.S. states and northwest Mexico, said Jose Gutierrez, assistant director for binational affairs at Mexico's National Water Commission. Mexico's rights are enshrined in a 1944 treaty.
"The treaty carries great significance in our country. We have to protect it fiercely," Gutierrez said.
The San Diego County Water Authority is also considering a plant at Southern California's Camp Pendleton that would produce up to 150 million gallons a day. Poseidon wants to build one in Huntington Beach, near Los Angeles, that would churn out 50 million gallons a day. Those ideas face significant challenges....
The San Diego agency wants to get 10 percent of the region's water from desalination by 2020 as a way to lessen its dependence on the Colorado River, which is connected by aqueduct about 200 miles away. Tijuana also wants to rely less on the river, a priority that gained urgency after a 2010 earthquake knocked out its aqueduct for about three weeks.