New US Water Management Agreement
Mexico is at the end of the line
By Martina

Is it half full or half empty? Lake Mead in Arizona has dropped 100 feet since 2001 and is filled only to 48% of its original capacity. A drop of another 35 feet would trigger a federal declaration of a water shortage, and force Nevada, Arizona, California and possibly Mexico to reduce their combined water usage. A water crisis in the US will directly affect Baja, since Mexico is the very last end user of Colorado river water. Everyone living in Mexico should be aware of the long term water crisis and its potential implications for Baja.

In December, an important new agreement was signed by the seven Lower Basin states along the Colorado River, outlining how the states will share the drought burden. The accord spells out how water rationing will be imposed if Lake Mead continues to shrink. Arizona, Nevada, and California will received reduced water allotments. Bob Walsh, spokesman for the US Bureau of Reclamation, said that this new agreement is a “big one” historically, and allows the states to share the pain of reductions. But, it also gives them more control and self-regulation than the old system that was based on a “use it or lose it” method.

A report from the Copley News Service suggests that there is a “missing ingredient” in the seven state pact, and that would be Mexico. Mexico is the last spigot in line. In 1944, a bilateral treaty was signed that required the US to give Mexico an allocation of the Colorado River water. But, the seven US states in the Lower Basin want Mexico to be included in the drought mitigation plan that would spread future shortages among all users. Some commentators think that Mexico will decline to join the drought plan, using the power of the 1944 Treaty. If it decides to share in the burden, Baja will experience these shortages as well.

At the heart of the overall agreement are rules designed to protect minimum water levels in lakes Mead and Powell through the year 2026. An important new feature of this agreement is that states can regulate themselves by cutting back their water use, and “bank” the savings in Lake Mead. If Mexico chooses to participate, it will also be afforded this new “banking” system. “It will be the most fundamental change in how the river’s water is allocated since the 1920’s” said Dirk Kempthorne, the Secretary of the Interior.

To further complicate Mexico’s plight, the 1944 treaty requires Mexico to share its Rio Grande water with the US, in exchange for the US giving Mexico water from the Colorado. However, because of the extreme drought, Mexico’s water debt to the US has grown into billions of cubic meters. Case Walsh, a water specialist at Mexico’s Iberoamericana University said, “The Rio Grande is one of the most stressed river basins in the world, and water use is already at its limit.” On the other hand, Jeffrey Davidow, former US ambassador to Mexico, said, “Mexico receives four times more water from the US than it gives us. We are doing our part…but Mexico is not fulfilling its obligations.”

If Mexico fulfills its treaty obligations to the US, it will destroy Mexican border agriculture. Mexican farmers contend that drought conditions left their country without sufficient water to pay the debt to the US from the sources stipulated in the 1944 treaty. In a move to appease the US, President Vicente Fox released water to the US in early 2001. The farmers said Fox took the illegal step of taking water from other reservoirs that were not named in the treaty. More than 14,000 Tamaulipas families were severely affected by the water payment. “It is going to be disastrous unless there is a change. Companies, farmers, and government at the local, state and federal levels need to work out a solution,” said Leslie Hopper of Sul Ross University, which is studying the Rio Grande’s plight.

As the water wars continue to heat up, the US is adopting more strategies to stop excess water from flowing into Mexico. The latest project is a new reservoir in California to be built on the border of the Mexicali agricultural area as part of the All-American Canal. It is designed to store excess Colorado River water that otherwise flows into Mexico, the amount in excess of Mexcio’s water allocation under the 1944 Treaty. As the US paves the All-American canal, Mexico loses underground seepage that makes its way to the Mexicali farmers. This once “non-storable” water was a free gift of nature to Mexico, but now the billions of gallons of Colorado River water will be captured by the “Drop 2 Reservoir” project. Jennifer Pit of Environmental Defense said that the reservoir will “minimize over-delivery to Mexico. Mexico will still receive its Treaty right of 1.5 million acre-feet, but it won’t receive as much “over delivery” as it did in the past.”

Water is a strategic resource and some say that it will be more important than oil in the 21st century. Others worry about the rumblings deep inside corporate America of a “water market” and the “privatization” of water. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Tequila is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”

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