Just before the toll road stretching south from Tijuana enters Rosarito Beach, it veers inland, away from beautiful blue-water views, swinging wide around an industrial power plant complex, all filled with metal smokestacks and white fuel tanks, a major source of Baja California’s electricity.

There, water suppliers from across the Southwest are studying what would be the first project of its kind: tapping Mexico’s ocean as a source of the United States’ drinking water.

Together with the Mexican government, the agencies supplying San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson are studying whether to build a seawater desalination plant in Mexico capable of producing 50 million gallons of water daily, enough to supply 112,000 homes, as a way of reinforcing water reliability in both countries. Water would either be pumped to the United States or swapped for the rights to some of Mexico’s share of the Colorado River.

The two countries already share the Colorado, the lifeblood of not only the American Southwest but Mexicali, Tecate and Tijuana, too. But the mighty river no longer looks so dependable. Lake Mead, the vital Colorado River reservoir held back by the Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas, recently dropped to its lowest point since being filled in the late 1930s, sapped by drought and growing demand.

With the potential for shortage looming, the agencies say a desalination plant south of the border could augment the Colorado’s supply, create a new source to entice Mexico to share in future cuts and foster cooperation that’s often been lacking in the countries’ water history.

The Rosarito site has all the right pieces: Open land for construction. A neighboring power plant to plug into. A straw already in the ocean, sucking in cooling water that could be shared by a desalination plant.

It’s also not in California, where regulations and enforcement are tighter, labor and environmental compliance is costlier, approvals take longer and the public has more opportunities to participate in decisions (and to sue over them).

Major electronics and textile manufacturers turned to Mexico in the 1990s for many of those reasons. Power producers followed in the early 2000s. Now, water agencies are poised to be the latest to cross the border. Regulators, legal experts and environmental leaders question whether they’re doing it to skirt their own country’s stringent rules on desalination.

“They don’t ask as many questions” in Mexico, said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, the state agency that regulates coastal development. “They don’t protect the environment like we do in California.”

Desalination offers the promise of being a drought-proof local supply in an arid region that imports most of its water from hundreds of miles away. But it is highly regulated in California because of its environmental impacts, such as massive pumps that suck in and kill fish larvae and other marine life.

In Carlsbad, private developer Poseidon Resources has gone through a decade of studies, permitting and litigation for a plant that could produce 50 million gallons of drinking water daily. It still hasn’t been built.

The Carlsbad proposal highlights the costs of state regulations that don’t exist in Mexico. California regulators are requiring Poseidon to offset the carbon emissions created by the proposed plant’s electricity consumption, which the company in 2007 estimated would cost $5 million. Mexico has no similar requirements.

Mexico also lacks specific rules for discharging brine, the extra-salty byproduct of desalination, said Paul Ganster, director of San Diego State University’s Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias. If not properly circulated, that brine can hurt fish and other marine life near a plant.

“What I try to tell Mexican and U.S. officials about this is: They better meet the most stringent regulations of either California or Mexico, otherwise there will be lawsuits,” Ganster said.

That happened a decade ago when energy companies built power plants to supply the United States from Mexicali, where they enjoyed Mexico’s lower pollution requirements and faster permitting process. Congressional pressure ultimately forced the plants to comply with U.S. regulations.

“If I can go down to Baja and it’s non-controversial, I can save a huge headache,” said Bill Powers, a San Diego engineer involved in the border power fight. “And yet it’d be a showstopper in California. The opportunity’s no different than why gringos go down to Avenida Independencia. It’s wide open.”

The water agencies looking at Rosarito say they’re aware of the countries’ differing regulations and don’t intend to outsource the environmental impacts of desalination to another country. Potential shortages on the Colorado are driving their interest, they say.

“It’d be unfair not to acknowledge that the permitting hurdles are substantial in California — and an unknown in Mexico,” said J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas. “But you can’t point to that and say, ‘That’s why they’re looking at the site.’”

Not with so many other essential components right there, he said, such as the land, intake infrastructure and power plant. Having existing intakes can save tens of millions on a large project. Those same characteristics attracted Poseidon to Carlsbad, alongside the power plant there.

Halla Razak, Colorado River programs director at the San Diego County Water Authority, a major supplier here, called it premature to draw conclusions about permitting steps the project may take. An initial $100,000 study only tried to identify any fatal flaws. So far, none have emerged.

A $600,000 study due at the end of the year will examine environmental regulations in more depth and provide essential cost estimates. The next phase, if approved, calls for a pilot plant to operate. A final phase would design a full-scale facility. A large plant wouldn’t be built for at least four to nine years.

“I really expect that if and when we move forward with this project, we’ll be looking at all the impacts that are being looked at on this side of the border,” Razak said.

The U.S. agencies currently wouldn’t have to meet American regulations for aspects of the plant constructed in Mexico unless they volunteered to or they received federal funding.

The initial study, jointly funded by agencies in the United States and Mexico, have concluded that environmental regulations in the two countries are “similar,” without noting explicit differences in greenhouse gas or brine discharge regulations.

“Similar — you can drive a freight train through that one,” said Richard Kiy, president of the International Community Foundation, which has funded an examination of desalination best practices in Baja California Sur.

Kiy, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who also worked on the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, said the trade deal and its environmental components were designed to keep polluting or damaging industries from being funneled to Mexico to escape strict U.S. regulations.

“That’s the central question: Are entities looking to Mexico as a pollution haven?” he said. “That’s a fair question to ask.”

The large water agencies aren’t the only ones looking at Baja California for supply. A private Mexican company, N.S.C. Agua, is pushing ahead with plans to build its own desalination plant at the Rosarito site, with the intent of selling some water to the Otay Water District, which serves Spring Valley, Jamul and eastern Chula Vista. Otay hopes to get a third of its supply from the effort no sooner than 2015.

Mark Watton, Otay’s general manager, believes a private developer can get a plant built faster than the large water agencies. The parallel effort isn’t competing with those agencies, he said. It could provide the supply for the agencies to swap Colorado River supplies with Mexico.

Either effort will have to contend with Baja California’s burgeoning environmental community. But while environmental lawyers are growing more influential there, corruption and lacking public participation remain problematic, said Fernando Ochoa, executive director of Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste, an Ensenada environmental group.

“If the laws were applied the way they have to be, it would be as difficult and as expensive and take as much paperwork and time as it does in the United States,” Ochoa said. “That’s the ideal world. Does it happen? Very seldom.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis.

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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