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Former Phoenix mayor: Partner with Mexico to desalinate seawater

PHOENIX -- The former mayor of the nation's sixth-largest city wants Arizona to form a partnership with Mexico that would build desalination facilities and tap in the ocean's virtually limitless supply of water.

Phil Gordon, who served as mayor from 2004 to 2011, said bringing in desalinated water from the Gulf of California would not only secure Arizona's future but increase collaboration with Mexico and create economic opportunity on both sides of the border.

"I want to see a desalination plant built because, as mayor of Phoenix, I knew how valuable water is and will continue to be," he said. "Not only the Valley but in the world water is going to become, if it's not already, more valuable than gold or oil."

Raising the idea in a November column published by The Arizona Republic, Gordon said one benefit of desalinated water would be allowing Mexico and Arizona to create more farmland.

"Use that water for putting all those millions of acres of desert in northern Mexico and southern Arizona into food production and become not only a water-producing area but also a breadbasket for the United States and the world," he said.

Acting now would provide a secure long-term water supply before an emergency leaves the state and northern Mexico scrambling, Gordon said.

"It's better, to me, to start addressing that today than to wait until a crisis of lack of water, lack of food, and then all of the sudden you have, really, disruption in the state and in Mexico," he said.

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said she agrees with Gordon that desalination would provide the state a drought-proof supply of water in the long run.

"Desalination is definitely a part of our future; it's completely feasible," Fabritz-Whitney said.

She also likes the idea of involving Mexico.

"We share so many issues with them, and water is a big one," she said. "Partnering with Mexico, we'd get more useable water and more jobs - it's a win-win."

Kathleen Ferris, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, said that desalination has downsides such as the amount of energy required to treat and transport the water as well as dealing with brine. She said she hasn't written off the idea, however.

"This is a difficult and expensive prospect. We're going to need some really big thinkers and a very sophisticated approach," Ferris said.

Former Sen. Jon Kyl, who sponsored legislation that led to agreements on American Indian tribes' water rights in Arizona, said the state needn't be concerned with desalination right now.

"Thanks to good planning with the CAP, the SRP and the Groundwater Management Act, we're not in a situation right now to invest in something as expensive as desalination," he said. "Quite possible by midcentury, but not right now."

Kyl noted that Israel and other countries in the Middle East already get water through through desalination, so the processes and costs should improve as time passes.

He said he doesn't see the economic opportunities Gordon raises as reasons to get into desalination.

"You don't do it just to create jobs," he said.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, said there's no upside to desalination and that Arizona's focus should be on conserving the water it already has.

"At a time when we're trying to reduce energy use and get it from cleaner sources, building massive desalination plants to feed unsustainable development is just not a good choice," she said.

But Gordon said committing to desalination would be in keeping with the pioneering spirit that envisioned a bustling city in the desert and created the water infrastructure to make it happen.

"If we look back over 100 years ago, people thought that the original ranchers and farmers of the Salt River Project were crazy, and yet we couldn't survive today without that forward thinking," he said.

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