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UA researchers weigh in on water issue

Environmental researchers at the UA are stepping into a politically charged battle for Arizona's water, saying they hope to lend a hand in reaching an intelligent decision. 


Due to the water shortage in the Southwest, politicians have started to look beyond the border to solve the region's water woes, experts say. 

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South of the Arizona-Mexico border, lies a massive open wetland — known as the Cienega de Santa Clara — that covers more than 40,000 acres alive with bustling bushes, thousands of migratory and resident birds, and numerous endangered species.  


Experts say the Cienega de Santa Clara is a relatively new thriving ecosystem — starting in the 1960s. Forty years of diverted agricultural runoff has turned what was once dry, desolate mud into a thriving ecosystem at the base of the Colorado River Delta. 


Jennifer Pitt, a senior resource analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in a statement that the Cienega de Santa Clara has become a crucial part of the Pacific Flyway for birds. The Cienega is also recognized by the Ramsar Convention, a group promoting the importance of wetlands, as a wetland with ecological significance.


However, water managers in the Southwest have their eyes on a water-desalting plant located in Yuma, Ariz., that hasn't been used in years. In 2004, Congress passed an energy bill that gave the OK to dust off the cobwebs from the Yuma Desalting Plant and start filtering water coming from the Colorado River—which would be carried to cities in the Southwest and solve the water crisis.


But the end product from filtered river water would be large concentrations of salt and brine that would eventually end up in the Cienega, Pitt said.


Karl Flessa, Director of the UA School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, along with a team of researchers from both the Southwest and Mexico, has spent the past three years studying the potential effect the Yuma Desalting Plant has on the eco-system of the Cienega.


""Running the Yuma Desalting Plant may increase the salinity of the water, and decrease the amount of water that flows into the Cienega,"" Flessa said. ""This is potentially harmful to the vegetation and may affect the quality of the habitat of the endangered species, waterfowl, and migratory birds.""


At least one member of Flessa's team ventures to the Cienga every month to run tests for water salinity, ability to dissolve oxygen and selenium content. So far the team has found that if the desalting plant only operates at 10 percent total capacity, it would have little effect on the ecosystem of the Cienega — however, Flessa hopes for the best of both worlds.


""Ideally, I would like for us to be able to maintain the Cienega and run the Yuma Desalting Plant,"" Flessa said. ""From what we have seen through different research projects, if ground water could be used with running the Yuma Desalting Plant it would not cause any harm to the Cienega.""


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