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WIFA may fast-track desalination plant, 'large expenditure of taxpayer dollars' without public comment, lawmakers say

The state's Water Infrastructure Finance Committee heard presentations Friday at a public meeting on a potential desalination deal. They could approve it on Tuesday.

ARIZONA, USA — Arizona water experts have been talking about converting seawater into drinkable water in the abstract, with no timeline for when the theoretical new source of water would become a reality.

That reality got a lot closer suddenly on Friday when lawmakers announced a state water authority was trying to fast-track millions in taxpayer funding for a desalination plant without the chance for public comment. Desalination is the process in which salt is removed from seawater. 

"The Legislature has learned of a rushed movement by the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority to provide preliminary approval of a large expenditure of taxpayer dollars on a desalination plant proposal without an appropriate opportunity for public discussion and comment," Kim Quintero, director of communications for Arizona State Senate Republicans, said in an email to media Friday.  

Arizona's Water Infrastructure Finance Authority's (WIFA) board, a 2022 creation of Gov. Doug Ducey, held a meeting on Friday where board chairman David Beckham lead a discussion on IDE Technologies' desalination plant, according to the authority's website.

The meeting's agenda also said the board could take action on the proposal as soon as Dec. 20. In response, state Republicans announced they would be holding a meeting at 2 p.m. on the same day.

"The Legislature is scheduling the attached committee for Tuesday, Dec 20 to provide the proper level of transparency owed to taxpayers and required by SB 1740," Quintero said.

WIFA isn't the only one pushing for desalination. Arizona Senator Mark Kelly made comments to reporters after the Colorado River Water Users Association conference on Friday indicating that the majority of federal officials' augmentation focus is on desalination.

"The [augmentation] that's moving the quickest is desalination," Kelly said. "The problem is so significant that there needs to be an "all of the above" approach to augmentation. Desalination is expensive ... but money is there for desalination projects."

READ MORE: Feds want states to take the reigns of the Colorado River crisis, but will force a solution if one isn't found

Previous conversations around desalination, while abstract, have also received mixed reactions from state water experts. They affirm that a desalination plant may be the most likely and viable source of water augmentation, but they have also said a new "big project" isn't what we should be focusing on.

A desalination plant would cost billions of dollars to build and take decades before it would be up and running. 

"There's a tendency because of [past successful projects] to think that there's another big project out there, there's another SRP or CAP that will save us in the next century. I really don't think there is," President of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Terry Goddard said at a recent water forum.

Experts have advocated for a focus on changing Arizona's water habits, instead of focusing on new technology.

"Most of what we need to do... is not really augmentation, but is making different kinds of choices about how water is used," said Grady Gammage Jr., Senior Research Fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy.

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