'Locking in' desalination in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands: Path dependency, techno-optimism and climate adaptation

Brian F. O’Neill
College of Global Futures, School of Ocean Futures, Arizona State University; Walton Center for Planetary Health - Global Futures Laboratory, University Drive, Tempe, AZ, USA; bfoneill@asu.edu

Anne-Lise Boyer
LabEx DRIIHM (Pima County Observatory), CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) – University of Arizona, Interdisciplinary Institute for Global Environmental Studies, Tucson, Arizona, USA; anneliseboy@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: Desalination (producing potable water from saline sources) has gained notoriety globally as climate change threatens water supplies. Strikingly, Arizona – a territory lacking coastal boundaries – has developed desalination proposals to augment water supplies, which imply leveraging relations with Mexico and/or expanding inland desalting. Utilising original data collected from interviews, participant observation, and archival sources, this research exposes the historical dynamics and discourses shaping Arizona’s ambitions. The article reveals how Arizona’s desalting pursuits are constructed around limited access to distant water sources and guided by the flaws in the Colorado River system. Case studies examined include the historically uneven trajectories of desalination proposals for the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, brackish water in Yuma, Arizona, and urban aquifer desalination in the Phoenix area. Following from the insights of political ecology, path dependency theory, and critiques of technologically optimistic ideology, the evidence points to how Arizona remains 'locked in' to this infrastructural commitment because of past policies, decisions, and tendencies. However, the Arizona case is not of interest only because it concerns largely unsuccessful, if consistent, attempts to diversify a supply portfolio, but also because desalination is marketed as a strategy aimed at avoiding dependence on large water transfers and centralised decision-making. Therefore, the evidence illustrates that desalination, in whatever form it takes, has been unable to alter deeply rooted institutional and political challenges; the Groundwater Management Act (a legal structure) and the Central Arizona Project (a mega-canal) are prime examples. The article’s theoretical and empirical connections are useful for scholars, decision-makers, policy analysts, NGOs, and activists concerned about the possibilities for a sustainable society, because the historical analysis illuminates the flaws in managing resources with an overly optimistic orientation to technology that limits the vision for alternative infrastructure paradigms under the conditions of climate change. In other words, even when desalination is "just another tool in the toolbox", we argue it takes an outsized place in water planning discussions due to the significant financial and political commitments the technology requires. In so doing, desalination locks in new and sometimes long-standing path dependencies, based upon attempts to evade old ones.

KEYWORDS: Climate change adaptation technology, path dependency, political ecology of water, seawater and brackish water desalination, Southwestern United States and Mexican Borderlands