Days 12 and 13: Yuma, Wellton, and Lake Havasu City

Thursday, July 21st

After our 14-hour workday in Mexico, we were all ready to catch up on sleep once we arrived in Yuma, Arizona. The next morning we had another early wake-up in order to get to our meeting at the Yuma Desalinization Plant, the world’s largest reverse osmosis system. The plant was completed in 1992 to treat the saline return flows from the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District. Water treated by the desalting plant would theoretically be used as part of the water delivery to Mexico. I say ‘theoretically’ because, with the exception of two test runs, the plant has been sitting idle since its completion in 1992. The Bureau of Reclamation considers the plant a potential tool for extending the water supply. If the plant were to be operated in the future, it could be done at 1/3, 2/3 or full capacity; during the pilot run it was operated at 1/3 capacity. It is impossible to know what capacity it might run at in the future because of the many factors involved, such as the extremity of the current drought and the ability to deliver brackish water to the Cienega de Santa Clara.

As mentioned in the previous day’s blog post on Mexico, 90% of the Cienega de Santa Clara wetland is sustained by the highly saline drainage water from the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District- the same water that would be sent to the desalting plant. Minute 316 was created through binational collaboration in an attempt to address this obstacle. The minute states that the US, Mexico, and NGOs such as Pronatura would each designate 10,000 af (for a total of 30,000 af) to the  bypass drain for the Cienega de Santa Clara wetland, if needed.

Additionally, during the 1960’s the quality of water being delivered to Mexico became so poor that Mexico filed a formal complaint, leading to Minute No. 242, which holds the US responsible for delivering water that is no more than 145 parts per million greater than the salinity levels at the last water quality checkpoint in the US (Imperial Dam).  These levels are monitored daily, and the US has never failed to meet the requirement.

We picked up and drove to the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district (WMIDD) in Wellton, Arizona after our Yuma morning, to meet with Ken Baughman of WMIDD and to get a tour of the region. The Wellton agricultural land area is smaller than that irrigated by the Imperial Irrigation District, only about 65,000 acres, to which the WMIDD diverts about 450,000 acre-feet per year. Of this, about 140,000 af are returned, and actually flow down through Mexico, creating the Cienega de Santa Clara wetlands, making Wellton’s consumptive use closer to 310,000 af.

While quiet at first, Baughman and his fellow WMIDD Water Master, Kurt, turned out to be great resources who offered us both the farming perspective and the reality of the situation down in Wellton. Baughman told us that back before the railroad came through this area of Arizona in 1870, the region was filled with small wells, and outsiders referred to it as “that little well-town”; the name stuck, hence “Wellton.”

Wellton-Mohawk has the largest cattle feed yard west of the Mississippi River (150,000 head), and produces crops such as iceberg lettuce (this is where the US gets winter lettuce from), cotton, wheat, sudan grass, and lots of little seed crops. It also has one of the oldest water rights in the country, meaning that projected future shortages will be delayed in impacting the region. The WMIDD is currently able to divert 4 af/yr to farmers in their district, enough to grow successful crops.

After meeting at the WMIDD headquarters, where they also handle power distribution, we learned a bit about how the district is structured by taking a driving tour of the region. We saw how water coming from Imperial Dam to the west in California is actually pumped uphill by massive pumping plants built in the early 1950s, in order to irrigate the higher-ground acreage. These pumping plants, while not the most efficient because of their age, are quite sturdy and have been very successful at keeping the region irrigated.

Our tour took us to various fields, irrigation canals, smaller pumping stations, and finally ended with a newly-introduced crop in the region, the olive tree. The climate here, while incredibly hot in the summer, is such that it’s capable of supporting a wide variety of crops, as we saw. When asked, Baughman admitted that farming in this kind of desert seems to be a little crazy due to how little water is around, yet it also seems to work.

After saying our goodbyes to our two fabulous tour guides, we took off for Lake Havasu City that evening, about three hours north. Here, we would speak with Myron McCoy, the outdoor recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management, to get his perspective on recreation in one of the country’s most popular vacation destinations. With 10 million visitors every year, Myron has a thorough understanding of recreation in the area, as well as the impact of recreation on the environment. Boating is by far the most common form of recreation on Lake Havasu, however visitors also enjoy a variety of other outdoor adventures such as hiking, biking, camping, wildlife viewing, hunting/fishing, and off-roading.

Friday, July 22

Part of a multi-agency cooperation campaign to stop invasive mussels.

On Friday morning, Myron spoke to us about the impact that population and recreation growth in the area has on the natural environment. The proliferation of new trails and the increasing number of off-road vehicles has proven to have a huge environmental footprint throughout recent years. However, with fewer visitors due to the downturn of the economy in recent years, Myron has witnessed a rejuvenation of much of the natural environment. There has been a decrease in trash pollution, fewer vehicles creating new off-road trails, and fewer environmental problems associated with dust.

One environmental problem that has not improved in recent years is the challenge of invasive species. There were a host of pamphlets in the BLM office educating visitors on the measures that they need to take to avoid spreading nuisance species such as the quagga mussel, a nonnative invasive species that has colonized throughout the entire Colorado River.

At the finish of the meeting, it was time to begin the long trip home. With only one meeting on Saturday, we were nearing the end of our odyssey.