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Friday, Feb. 29, 2008 | The developer behind the Bajagua Project LLC, the controversial effort to boost Tijuana’s lagging sewage treatment infrastructure, has come up with a new proposal to build a desalination plant in Baja California.

The proposal from San Marcos businessman Enrique Landa has been dubbed Nevagua. It calls for the city of Tijuana to use water from a Baja California desalination plant. In exchange, the Mexican government would give up an equal amount of its annual slice of the water it receives from the Colorado River. Instead of flowing to Mexico, that swapped water would be stored in Lake Mead, a massive reservoir east of Las Vegas, where a United States-based urban water agency would tap into it.

If it succeeded, the proposal would give water agencies from across the arid West a way to tap into the Pacific Ocean without having to shoulder the impractical costs of directly connecting pipes to the ocean.

Landa’s group would guarantee the water supply to the yet-to-be-identified urban agency, while building and operating the desalination plant, according to a 13-page presentation the developer prepared in March 2007.

Craig Benedetto, a spokesman for Landa, said the proposal was a back-burner idea that had never gained traction with any water suppliers in the United States.

“This project is nothing,” Benedetto said. “It’s going nowhere, it’s gone nowhere.”

Landa floated the concept to “a lot of different folks,” Benedetto said, but none agreed to it. The concept dates to at least December 2005, when Landa registered the domain name nevagua.com.

Water transfers and exchanges are common techniques used by water managers across the West, where the rights to water sources can be traded and sold like commodities. The San Diego County Water Authority used a transfer in the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement. The authority paid farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District to take less water than they were entitled to from the Colorado River, allowing the authority to use the water instead.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides water to 2 million Las Vegas residents, is interested in the concept of exchanging desalinated water for a larger claim to the Colorado River, spokesman J.C. Davis said. The authority’s general manager has signaled an interest in pursuing desalination projects in California or Mexico.

Benedetto said he believed Landa had met with the authority; Davis said such a meeting had not occurred. But the authority will listen to any proposals, Davis said.

“Any opportunity that we can take that helps secure our water future, we are all ears,” Davis said.

Such a plan would not necessarily make sense for the Nevada agency, Davis said. The authority depends on Lake Mead and the Colorado River for 90 percent of its water, and Lake Mead’s levels have been dropping. Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently projected the reservoir’s water levels have a 50-50 chance of being too low to draw water out by 2021.

If a project such as Nevagua were successful, Davis said the authority would have “succeeded in putting more eggs in the Colorado River basket. Given a choice, you’re trying to get your eggs out of that basket, because it’s shrinking.”

Mexico’s share of the Colorado River has been a controversial subject with the United States for decades. The United States and Mexico signed a treaty in 1944 that guaranteed Mexico 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado each year. (An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two families for a year.)

But as the United States increased its dependence on the Colorado, the water that flowed into Mexico became saltier and seriously declined in quality. The United States eventually agreed in the early 1970s to build a desalination plant in Yuma to improve water quality. The treaty and subsequent negotiations have given Mexico a valuable trading chip as the West faces its predicted dry future.

“The Mexicans have 1.5 million acre feet that they can use for trading purposes. If the price is right, why not?” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, who has studied water politics.

Building a desalination plant would be easier and less expensive in Mexico than in California, he said, because “you don’t have the regulatory system down there that you have here. You don’t have the speed bumps. All of the hoops that Poseidon has gone through with the Coastal Commission (to permit its Carlsbad desalination plant) aren’t there south of the border.”

Poseidon operates six desalination plants in Mexico, all located adjacent to Pemex refineries, said Peter MacLaggan, a Poseidon senior vice president.

Getting a United States-based water agency involved in a deal would enable a Mexican desalination plant to receive needed financing, MacLaggan said. Cities such as Tijuana and Ensenada “aren’t necessarily considered to be financially stable enough to back the loans for a plant,” he said. “That’s always been the challenge: To come up with something you can finance.”

Beyond financing, the project would face numerous hurdles that Landa has highlighted in the presentation: The governments of Mexico and the United States would need to agree to reduce deliveries to Mexico. Landa would have to push the project through the International Boundary and Water Commission, a State Department agency that he has fought with over the Bajagua proposal.

The San Marcos-based Bajagua Project calls for building a treatment plant in Mexico to handle 59 million gallons of sewage daily, boosting Tijuana’s treatment capacity by 34 million gallons a day while providing a source of reclaimed water. The project would boost the levels of waste pulled out of sewage currently treated in the United States at a San Ysidro plant, aiming to improve the ocean’s water quality near the U.S.-Mexico border. Each time it rains, sewage-laden runoff streams down Tijuana’s hillsides into the Pacific Ocean.

Bajagua would pay for the construction costs, estimated between $150 million and $200 million, then make its profit through the plant’s operation. Though the cost would be shouldered by U.S. taxpayers, the price tag has never been divulged.

Benedetto, the spokesman for Landa, said the developer is focused on Bajagua, not Nevagua. Congress is currently awaiting a Government Accountability Office report on the Bajagua project that could influence whether it moves forward or gets killed.

“No one has shot [Nevagua] down,” Benedetto said. “The problem more than anything else has been getting Bajagua dealt with. Enrique’s focus has always been Bajagua.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly specified that Poseidon’s Mexico desalination plants are located in Baja. We regret the error.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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