BRENDA, AZ — Residents in one western Arizona community worry that a clean energy company, which plans to build nearby, could hog their groundwater supply.
Brenda is a small town located a few miles north of Interstate 10 in La Paz County. Like nearby Quartzsite, it caters to RV visitors who are looking for sunshine and warmth during the winter months.
At Buckaroo’s Sandwich Shop, manager Lisa Lathrop said she has lived in the area for 13 years because “it's usually quiet out here and nobody knows about us.”
That’s about to change.
The addition of the Ten West Link, a high-voltage transmission line currently being built to connect Tonopah with Blythe, California, is expected to bring multiple solar power companies to the area. New federal laws designed to aid renewable energy expansion and the availability of leases for federal and state lands are also attracting companies including California-based Heliogen.
Just outside of Brenda, Heliogen has the exclusive right to lease six square miles of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
Heliogen and Bloom Energy are planning to build a green hydrogen-generating facility on the site, according to a company press release from February 2022. A year after that announcement, many people in Brenda told ABC15 they never heard anything about the company or green hydrogen.
Green hydrogen is an emerging technology to create eco-friendly power. Heliogen has produced videos showing how it would use concentrated solar power to run an electrolyzer, which would separate water molecules into its components, hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could be transported off-site for use in industrial activities or as an alternative to fossil fuel for vehicles.
“The Brenda SEZ is an ideal location for commercial-scale green hydrogen production due to the ample local water supply and its close proximity to potential offtake partners and key distribution channels,” said Bill Gross, Chief Executive Officer of Heliogen.
Some residents of Brenda disagree. They live in a desert during a drought and wonder where the company thinks that water would come from.
The BLM tells ABC15 they are currently reviewing Heliogen's plan of development and determining the level of environmental analysis for a groundwater test wells study.
The applicant has sent GPS points of the two proposed test well locations, according to BLM, and the company expects to produce about 27,000 metric tons of hydrogen a year, requiring about 970 to 1290 acre-feet of water per year. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre with one foot of water. By comparison, an average family of four in Arizona uses one acre-foot of water a year.
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the site is located on the Ranegras Plain. The underground basin in this area is outside Arizona's Active Management Areas, which means anyone with a well has no restrictions on how much water they can use. But unrestricted access doesn't mean unlimited water, and area residents worry they'll run dry.
“I live in Salome,” Lathrop said. “They pump wells all the time, and they can't get water through them.”
“We can't just keep letting straws being put into ground and water being pumped out without any metering,” said La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin.
Irwin has been outspoken on the need for water management plans in rural Arizona. She also has questions about green hydrogen since several companies are proposing to build plants in La Paz County.
“It's one thing to get one of them, but then if we start getting two, three, four and five, now you're really talking about what type of big impacts is that going to have on our county as far as the aquifers go?” Irwin said.
At Buckaroo’s, diners doubted their drought concerns would sway a deal with a private corporation and the federal government.
“I think the big companies could do what they want pretty much, and then they don't care about 20 or 30 years down the road you know if they're getting what they need now,” one retiree in the diner told ABC15.
Even when your mission is to improve the environment globally, you can't ignore the impact locally.
“I’d probably tell them that they should try somewhere else; leave our water for us,” Lathrop said.