f e a t u r e

1 | parte
The Border’s Troubled Waters:
Parts I and II
by Mary Kelly and Arturo Solís with
George Kourous | December 2001

It has been said
the wars of the future will be waged for the control of water. On the
Texas-Mexico border, certainly, tension over the distribution of shared
water resources is rising. Complicating the facts that the region is
both arid and experiencing rapid population growth is the binational
dimension of the situation. While open conflict between the two countries
is, fortunately, highly unlikely, soothing the border’s troubled
waters will be no easy task. In a two-part series beginning this month,
examines U.S.-Mexico relations regarding border waters.


IBWC , Mexican Section
(16) 13-99-16

IBWC , U.S. Section
Tel: (915) 534-6700

(52) (5) 481-11-50

Comisión de Recursos Hidráulicos
Cámara de Diputados de Mexico
(52) 5628-13-00, ext. 7231

(89) 22-49-22

Río Grande/Río Bravo Basin Coalition ,
Mexico Office
(16) 17-59-98

Río Grande/Río Bravo Basin Coalition ,
U.S. Office
(915) 532-0399

(512) 474-0811


Web Sources:

“Reinventing the International Boundary and
Water Commission”
borderlines 79 (vol. 9 no. 6) July 2001

“Mexico and the U.S. Cut Rio Grande Deal, But
Tensions Run High as Border Water Runs Low”
borderlines 78 (vol. 9 no. 5) June 2001

“Borderlands Water Conflicts”
borderlines 57 (vol. 7, no. 6) July 1999

IBWC Minute 307

Instituto Mexicano de Tecnología del Agua

Sistema de Información Meteorológica
y Climática para el Noroeste de México y Suroeste de
Estados Unidos

Texas Water Foundation

For Mexico, assuring an adequate water supply has emerged as a critical
issue for the coming decades. Figures from Mexico’s National Water
Commission (CNA) indicate that the nation’s current water supply
is less than half of what it was in the 1950s. According to Victor Lichtinger,
who heads Mexico’s Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources
(SEMARNAT), more than 12 million Mexicans do not have access to drinking
water, and a number of large urban centers are currently facing serious
water supply problems. Mexico averages only 5,000 cubic meters of water
per person—an amount far below the global average of 8,000 to 10,000
cubic meters. In contrast, the United States, Canada, Europe, and some
South American countries enjoy as much as 30,000 cubic meters of water
per capita. To make matters worse, some 52% of Mexican territory is classified
as arid or semiarid. Many of these regions are in danger of desertification
as a result of ongoing deforestation, overgrazing, and overexploitation
of groundwater supplies.
In the dry border region, the situation is especially dire. Booming U.S.-Mexico
trade under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has accelerated
the growth of border manufacturing centers and sparked a rise in export-oriented
agriculture in certain dry northern states like Sonora. As a result, the
region’s rivers are being more heavily tapped then ever before and
the area’s aquifers are being mined at dangerously high rates.
For instance, in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area, many have predicted
that groundwater supplies may essentially run dry in 20 years. While El
Paso has begun to develop water rights in rural counties to the east,
it has also increased its dependence on surface waters taken from the
Río Grande/Río Bravo (RG/RB), the region’s main waterway.
Currently, El Paso gets about half of its annual water supply from the
river by leasing or otherwise acquiring irrigation water rights in El
Paso County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1.
El Paso’s switch to surface water has not been easy: barriers have
included difficulties in negotiating acquisition of irrigation rights,
and poor water quality in the river during times of low releases from
the upstream Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs. The reservoirs are
used to store about 2 million acre-feet of RG/RB waters, and their releases
almost completely determine the flow of the river through the El Paso/Juárez
area. These releases are tied solely to the needs of irrigators in the
Elephant Butte and El Paso area and to requirements to provide annual
transfers to Mexico of 60,000 acre-feet, as specified under a 1944 water
treaty. The dams, while providing storage, have also greatly reduced the
river’s downstream flow.
Indeed, the surface water resources of the RG/RB, have been overexploited
to provide a year-round supply of water for irrigated agriculture, industry,
and the border’s growing municipalities. On the U.S. side, the river
is already over-appropriated; that is, allocated water rights exceed—some
say they’re almost double—the amount of water routinely available.
At the same time, ongoing drought in northern Mexico and reduced flows
from Mexico’s Conchos River—which feeds into the Rio Grande/Rio
Bravo south of El Paso—have further impacted the river. The binational
Amistad and Falcon reservoirs have fallen to some of their lowest levels
since they became operable in the 1960s, severely constraining water supplies
for municipalities and irrigators on both sides of the Lower and Middle
Río Grande Valley.
The impacts of drought and in-stream shortfalls have been hard felt by
farmers and towns on both sides of the dividing line. Some U.S. agricultural
producers in the Lower Río Grande Valley estimate that their losses
have approached $400 million annually in recent years. Similar figures
are reported by Mexican growers, especially in the Northeast, where the
past ten years have witnessed a marked decrease in the amount of land
destined for agricultural production. In Nuevo León and Tamaulipas,
1995-96 estimates put crop losses at 600,000 acres of sorghum, corn, bean,
and wheat crops. Tamaulipas corn production dropped 44% in the 1994-95
season, and 1995-96 was also extremely difficult. In 1996, the Mexican
government was forced to import almost $2 billion worth of grain to alleviate
growing hunger, with much of the grain going to northern Mexico.
The region’s cities are feeling the pinch as well. The border town
of Río Bravo, in Tamaulipas, hasn’t had water service at night
since the CNA reduced that municipality’s water supply by 25% last
year. Some unofficial estimates put the number of Río Bravo residents
with irregular access to water at 80% of the population; the other 20%
manage via wells or storage tanks. Nationwide, some 38 Mexican cities
are facing severe water shortages, according to CNA information. Cities
on the list include Ciudad Juárez, Hermosillo, and Reynosa.
The Dwindling Río Grande
Beginning in the U.S. state of Colorado, the Rio Grande flows through
New Mexico, marks the border of Texas, and ends up in the Gulf of Mexico,
providing drinking water along the way for over 13 million people. It
is the fifth longest river in North America and, along with its tributaries,
serves as the Texas-Mexico border region’s main source of water.
From the New Mexico/Texas state line to just below El Paso, the Rio Grande
has been channeled, rerouted, and otherwise managed more as an international
boundary than as a river system. Flow through this stretch is almost entirely
dependent upon releases from Elephant Butte and Caballo dams. From downstream
of El Paso to just above the confluence with the Río Conchos, near
the border town of Ojinaga, the flow of the river is severely reduced.
This “forgotten river” stretch is an isolated section, with
relatively small scale irrigation uses.
In normal rainfall years most RG/RB water downstream of the “forgotten
river” stretch originates in Mexico as outflow from the Río
Conchos. But the Conchos basin itself is heavily managed, with several
large reservoirs having been constructed primarily to supply irrigation
districts. Most of the municipalities in the Conchos basin supply demand
with local groundwater reserves, although growth in towns like Aldama,
Allende y Camargo, Chihuahua, and Delicias has lead to increased water
Downstream from Ojinaga, the river traverses the Coahuila/Texas borderland
and enters the Amistad reservoir, administered jointly by the United States
and Mexico via the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC),
east of Big Bend National Park. The binational Amistad and downstream
Falcon reservoirs are the primary water storage and supply structures
on the Texas/Mexico stretch of the Río Grande. Completed in 1968
and 1953, respectively, they supply water for irrigation and cities on
both sides of the lower stretch of the river, providing a firm annual
yield of about 1 million acre-feet/year.
Below the Amistad/Falcon system, water is diverted directly from the
river both by a series of irrigation projects and by municipal pumping.
The only major inflows in this reach are from Mexico’s Río
Alamo and Río San Juan, both of which have been extensively developed
for agricultural and municipal uses south of the border.
The watershed narrows considerably as the river flows toward the Gulf
of Mexico. By the time it reaches the sea, the Río Grande has been
reduced to a trickle, compared to pre-1962 average flows of almost 2.4
million acre-feet/year. In February 2001, the river failed to even reach
the gulf, as a sand bar formed across Boca Chica Bay. Officials claimed
the sand bar was the result of unusual wave action and was not caused
solely by reduced river flow—but the symbolism was not lost on policymakers
or the public.
Water pollution complicates water supply management, as is evident in
many parts of the Río Grande basin. Pollution from dairies and
irrigation return flows makes the river water above El Paso unusable for
municipal purposes during low flow periods. Brackish water from irrigation
return flow drains in the El Paso/Juárez area has also degraded
water quality in the shallow Ro Grande alluvium aquifer. Below El Paso/Juárez,
the flow in the river primarily consists of treated wastewater from El
Paso, untreated wastewater from Juárez and irrigation return flows.
Juárez is just now getting sewage plants—though they will
provide only primary treatment at this point.
Municipal and industrial discharges (no cities in the basin have functioning
secondary sewage treatment), irrigation return flows, and agricultural
chemicals have also degraded water quality in the Conchos basin. A 1994
binational water quality study and a follow-up study in 1997 found high
levels of arsenic (possibly from arsenic-based herbicides used on cotton)
in the Lower Río Conchos, as well as other toxic pollutants. The
Pecos River tributary is notoriously high in total dissolved solids and
is typically unsuitable for municipal or domestic needs, though it is
used for irrigation in some of the rural counties through which it passes.
Water quality in the Amistad and Falcon reservoirs remains relatively
good, largely because of the size of the reservoirs. Downstream of Amistad,
sewage and industrial wastewater from Nuevo Laredo and discharges from
the Laredo area have caused water quality declines. In the stretch from
Falcon to the mouth of the Río Grande, sewage from Mexican border
municipalities, which can include industrial discharges, has also lowered
water quality. High salinity is also a concern in this stretch. In this
lower portion of the river, reduced river flows have also allowed saltwater
infiltration from the Gulf. This change has reduced the diversity of aquatic
species and several freshwater fish have disappeared, replaced by more
salt-tolerant species.
Water Use in the Eastern Borderlands
Irrigation is by far the largest use of water throughout the Texas/Mexico
portion of the Río Grande basin. In the El Paso/Far West Texas
region, irrigation accounts for about two-thirds of water use; in the
Lower Río Grande Valley of Texas, it is closer to 85%; in the Conchos
basin, irrigation accounts for over 90% of water use. Municipal consumption
is the next largest category on the U.S. side, ranging from 10 to 45%
of use. Municipal use in the El Paso County area, for example, represents
over 40% of total use, but in the Lower Río Grande Valley, it accounts
for only about 14%.
Nationwide, about 83% of Mexico’s water goes to agriculture, 12%
is used for human consumption in towns, and 5% is tapped by industry.
As in the United States, in Mexico’s northern border zone agriculture
is by far the largest consumer of river water. Municipal use in the Mexican
portion of the Río Grande is reported to be about 14% of total
use, ranging from less than 10% in the Conchos basin to over 35% in the
Ciudad Juárez area. Other significant water uses in the basin include
industrial operations, livestock watering, electricity generation, and
oil and gas production. Hydropower production occurs in a few areas, most
notably at Las Boquillas Dam in the Conchos basin.
A major factor impacting water use on the border is inefficiency in both
municipal and irrigation systems. In urban areas, inefficiencies result
from leaks in distribution systems and, in Mexican towns, a failure to
meter water use. Mexico’s cities, according to a recent study by
investigators at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
(UNAM), lose 30 to 40% of their water as a result of leaks and faulty
equipment. In some cities, half the water is lost due to such problems.
Ciudad Chihuahua is estimated to have a 30% loss of water from its municipal
system, though losses may be higher, because only about three-quarters
of the distribution system is metered.
The situation in the countryside is similar. Nationwide in Mexico, it
is estimated that water loss due to seepage and evaporation in the country’s
rural irrigation districts approaches 55%. Many of Mexico’s irrigation
and water transfer canals—most of which are over forty years old—are
not lined with concrete and are open-air.
Clearly, reducing these losses will be critical to meeting future water
demands, and some efforts are already underway. For example, a recent
study of irrigation in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas revealed that
the Brownsville Irrigation District was able to reduce water use by 33%
just by implementing surge irrigation and metering.
It’s fairly clear, however, that Mexico doesn’t have the funds
necessary to upgrade its water provision infrastructure. In May 2001,
shortfalls in government revenues led the Fox administration to enact
budget cuts of $372 million, including a $27.5 million reduction of the
CNA budget. Meanwhile, estimates of the total cost of renovating and upgrading
Mexico’s wells, treatment plants, and other water infrastructure
over the next ten years range as high as $60 billion.
Even with inefficiencies, however, Mexico’ per capita municipal
water consumption is generally only about half the Texas per capita consumption
rates. This difference is due largely to higher water use in the U.S.
for lawns, landscaping, and swimming pools.
However, with respect to both irrigation and municipal use of water,
price incentives for conservation have generally been lacking in both
the United States and Mexico. Irrigation water is generally very low-cost,
although this is starting to change. Similarly, the cost of water for
municipal use has been low. Water for domestic use has been essentially
free in most Mexican municipalities, which are just beginning to meter
and charge for water. With the exception of El Paso, cities in the Texas
portion of the basin have been slow to adopt conservation price structures
(i.e., charging more per unit of water as use increases). Of course, a
very real constraint on increasing the price of water for domestic use
is the low-income levels of a high percentage of border residents.
Water Policy and Management in Mexico
Water resource management in Mexico is largely the province of the federal
government. Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution essentially provides
the federal government with ownership of and jurisdiction over almost
all surface water and ground water. The government issues permits for
water use, pursuant to the 1992 federal water law. The permits include
concessions to private interests and assignments to governmental entities,
such as municipal water supply systems. These permits can be in force
for anywhere from 5 to 50 years, with extensions available. No permit
is required for domestic uses that do not involve construction of a water
distribution system.
In theory, permit issuance is contingent on water being available. In
many areas, however, the hydrological and current water use data needed
to determine water availability may not exist or may be insufficient or
The government imposes a fee for development and use of both surface
and subsurface water, with certain important exceptions. In 1996, the
fee varied with the location of the use and the time of year but generally
ranged from about $1 per thousand cubic meters for use in aquaculture,
recreation centers, or generation of hydroelectricity to $50-100 per thousand
cubic meters for potable water. The government does not charge a fee for
extraction and use of water for personal domestic use, for domestic use
in small towns and villages, or for agricultural use in irrigation districts
or unidades de riego (with the exception of agro-industrial use).
The federal government’s dominant role in water resource management
is lodged in CNA, which is now part of Mexico’s environmental agency,
SEMARNAT (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales). There
is a division of CNA that deals with water in the northern border states.
At the state level, there are Juntas Centrales de Agua y Saneamiento (central
directorates of water and sewer), which are primarily responsible for
each state’s role in water issues. Larger municipalities have their
own water and sewer departments, and there are also Juntas Rurales de
Agua Potable (rural water supply directorates).
Irrigation districts are generally established by presidential decree.
In recent years, the federal government has moved to delegate responsibility
for operation of the districts to user associations. The user associations
hold title to the water rights and are authorized to implement a system
of fees to help pay for the operation and maintenance of the water delivery
structure. The ultimate objective is to have the districts be financially
and operationally self-sufficient.
The 1992 water law contains a procedure for establishing Consejos de
Cuenca, (basin management councils.) The dual purpose of a basin council
is to improve intergovernmental coordination in water resource management
and to enhance cooperation between governmental entities, water users,
and other interests, including the public. A Consejo de Cuenca for the
Río Bravo basin in Mexico, including the Río Conchos, was
established in 1994 but has only recently begun to meet as a result of
the polemic regarding Mexico’s water debt to the United States.
Binational Disputes over Water Supplies
Under a 1944 binational treaty governing the disbursement of Río
Grande/Río Bravo waters, the United States has rights to either
one-third of the flow reaching the river from six tributaries or a minimum
of 350,000 acre-feet of water per year averaged over a five year period.
Since 1992, Mexico hasn’t made full water payments under the terms
of that agreement. Today, Mexico owes the United States over one million
acre-feet of water from the 1992-97 period and an additional 300,000 acre-feet
from the current five-year treaty cycle.
Mexico has blamed the ongoing drought in its northern region for its
difficulty making the water payments. Article 4 of the 1944 treaty does
in fact stipulate that Mexico can defer water payments and can transfer
less than 350,000 acre-feet/year over a five-year cycle, provided there
is a situation of extraordinary drought. However, the treaty does not
provide further definition of the term “extraordinary drought.”
This lack of certainty is now at the heart of a raging controversy, as
U.S. farmers in the Lower Río Grande Valley are alleging that the
drought in Chihuahua has not been so severe as to justify Mexico’s
current deficit and inability to make water payments.
On March 16, 2001, the U.S. and Mexico tackled the current controversy
by negotiating IBWC Minute 307. Under that agreement, Mexico promised
to release an installment payment of 600,000 acre-feet of water into the
RG/RB by July 31. The two countries also agreed to develop some type of
drought response and “sustainable management” plan for the RG/RB
basin. However, in July, Mexico failed to meet a deadline to deliver a
second water payment on its deficit and in late August announced that
drought conditions ruled out the possibility of a water installment by
the end of September—dashing the hopes of many Texas farmers to at
least salvage their late-season harvests.
The ongoing polemic was discussed by Presidents Fox and Bush when they
met recently in Washington, DC, but little is known about what was said.
Meanwhile, as Mexico draws fire from farmers and others in the United
States for its missed payments, Fox is being criticized at home by border
governors, farmers, and others for his administration’s efforts to
service Mexico’s water debt to the United States. One thing is certain:
despite closer U.S.-Mexico relations under the two new leaders, the issue
of equitable and sustainable distribution of the border’s water resources
remains a point of serious contention.

Mary Kelly is the executive director of the Texas Center for Policy
Studies (TCPS). Arturo Solis directs the Centro de Estudios Fronterizos
y de Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, A.C. (CEFPRODHAC). George
Kourous is the director of BIOS. For more information on the TCPS and
CEFPRODHAC, visit www.texascenter.org
and www.giga.com/~cefprodh ,
respectively. This article was adapted from two reports, Water Management
in the Binational Texas/Mexico Río Grande/Río Bravo Basin ,
by Mary Kelly (publication pending) and El Agua en La Frontera ,
issued by CEFPRODHAC in July 2001.

—Next month, part two of this article will look at binational water
disputes on the Texas-Mexico border, the existing mechanisms and agreements
governing water distribution in the region, and options for defusing the
current situation.
Second in a two-part series


Comisión de Cuenca del Río Conchos
Victor Hugo García Peña, Technical Secretary
(14) 14-00-51

Comisión de Recursos Hidráulicos
Cámara de Diputados
Jesus Burgos Pinto, President
(52) 5628-13-00 ext. 7231

Cristobal Jaime Jaquez, spokesperson
(5) 661-3806

Consejo de Cuenca del Río Bravo
Abelardo Amaya Enderle, Secretary
Tel: (8) 354-42-34
Fax: (8) 354-18-22

Consultoría Jurídica Internacional
Emb. Alberto Székely
5 (25) 616-6525

IBWC , Mexican Section
Jesús Luevano, Secretary to the Commissioner
(16) 13-99-16

IBWC , U.S. Section
Sally Spener, spokesperson
(915) 832-4100


Web Sources:


Texas Water Information Network

U.S.-Mexico Water Treaties

Water management on the Texas-Mexico portion of the U.S.-Mexico border
involves a complex set of laws and institutions as well as highly charged
policy debates. Relevant laws include the Rio Grande Compact, the Pecos
River Compact, Texas surface and groundwater statutes, Mexican federal
water law, and the 1906 and 1944 water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico.
The 1906 convention requires that the United States deliver 60,000 acre-feet/year
(AF/yr) of Rio Grande water to Mexico just above Ciudad Juárez,
Chihuahua. This water comes from the upstream Elephant Butte and Caballo
reservoirs, and has generally been used for irrigation in the valley south
of Juárez. Given the extensive drawdown of local aquifers, it is
likely that Juárez will soon seek to shift this water to municipal
The 1944 treaty cedes to the United States all waters reaching the Rio
Grande from the Pecos and Devils rivers, Goodenough Springs, and Alamito,
Terlingua, San Felipe, and Pinto creeks as well as half the flow of the
river below Falcon Reservoir. The United States also has rights to one-third
of the flows reaching the Rio Grande from the Rios Conchos, San Diego,
San Rodrigo, Escondido, and Salado as well as the Las Vacas Arroyo, provided
that this third shall not be less than 350,000 AF/yr averaged over five-year
In turn, under the treaty Mexico has rights to all waters reaching the
Rio Grande—known in Mexico as the Río Bravo—from the
San Juan and Alamo rivers, half the river’s flow below Falcon Reservoir,
and two-thirds of the flow reaching the river from the Rios Conchos, San
Diego, San Rodrigo, Escondido, and Salado as well as the Las Vacas Arroyo,
subject to the U.S. right to an average of at least 350,000 AF/yr.
Each country also has rights to half of all other flows in the river
not otherwise allotted, including contributions from unmeasured tributaries
between Fort Quitman and Falcon Reservoir.
Deepening Binational Tension over Water
The 1944 treaty has worked reasonably well and disputes between the U.S.
and Mexico over division of the waters of the Rio Grande have been minimal—until
recently. Persistent drought in southeastern Texas and northeastern Mexico,
coupled with rapid population growth and increased use of the region’s
water supplies, has led to significantly less water reaching the main
stem of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo—in particular from Chihuahua’s
Río Conchos, which in normal rainfall years is the source of most
of the river’s flows downstream of El Paso. In fact, flows have been
reduced such that since 1992 Mexico has been in a deficit situation with
respect to the 1944 U.S.-Mexico water treaty.
At the close of the five-year cycle that ended on October 2, 1997, Mexico
owed the U.S. approximately one million AF of water. This is more than
double the deficit incurred by Mexico during the drought of the 1950s,
which is the only other time Mexico has failed to meet the minimum flow
requirements during a five-year cycle. To date, according to figures from
the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), Mexico’s
combined water deficit for the 1992-97 cycle and the 1997-2002 cycle is
1.4 million AF.
According to Article 4 of the 1944 treaty, flows from Mexico can average
less than 350,000 AF/yr over a five-year cycle without Mexico being in
violation of the treaty—if there is a situation of “extraordinary
drought.” In such a case, the treaty allows Mexico to make up the
deficit in the subsequent five-year cycle. However, the treaty fails to
define what exactly constitutes an “extraordinary drought.”
In the past few years, intensifying pressure on border water resources,
Mexico’s growing water deficit, and gaps in the treaty—like
the lack of a clear definition of “extraordinary drought”—have
forced the U.S. and Mexico to scramble to negotiate ad hoc agreements
for resolving immediate crises, generally under the auspices of the IBWC.
These negotiations have focused almost exclusively on short-term solutions
rather than on developing medium- to long-term basin and drought management
plans. In 1995, for example, the IBWC responded to urgent conditions on
the Mexican side of the Rio Grande by negotiating Minute 293, an emergency
water loan to Mexico to meet municipal needs.
IBWC Minute 307—one of the tangible outcomes of the first face-to-face
meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente
Fox last February—is the most recent such short-term accord. In Minute
307, Mexico promised to release 600,000 AF of water—just over half
the amount it owes for the 1992-97 cycle—by July 31 in order to provide
enough water for Texas farmers to irrigate during the summer growing season.
The two countries also agreed to develop some type of drought response
and “sustainable management” plan for the Rio Grande/Río
Bravo (RG/RB) basin.
Between September 2000 and March 3, 2001 Mexico had already released
232,674 of the 600,000 AF. However, after initially releasing an additional
87,000 AF between March and June, Mexico missed the July deadline.
Part of the water to be paid by Mexico under Minute 307 came from the
runoff of unmeasured Rio Grande tributaries. According to the 1944 treaty,
the two countries split that runoff, but under Minute 307, 100% of it
was assigned to the United States in order to pay part of the 600,000
AF transfer specified by that accord. Under a contingency mechanism outlined
in Minute 307, the arrangement was to be extended through September if
Mexico missed the July 31 deadline. On July 21, Mexico suspended crediting
that runoff to the United States due to a Mexican court injunction filed
in response to complaints by Mexican farmers.
Since July 31 Mexico has managed to transfer just over 25,000 AF to the
United States.
Irate U.S. farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley say that the drought
has not been so severe as to justify Mexico’s withholding of waters.
Some estimates for crop losses resulting from the lack of water in south
Texas this year run as high as $400 million—and tempers are running
high as well. Area growers and Texas state officials, including Gov. Rick
Perry and Texas congressional representatives, have been outspoken regarding
the situation. Some have even suggested that the United States withhold
payments of Colorado River water to Mexico required under the 1994 treaty
as a bargaining tool.
For their part, farmers in northeastern Mexico appear to be every bit
as concerned about the current situation as farmers north of the line.
In June, 15,000 Mexican farmers filed suit against Mexico’s federal
water authority, the National Water Commission (CNA), demanding $110 reimbursement
for every acre of crops lost due to the ongoing water shortages. Mexican
growers and their families have even taken over local CNA offices and
blocked reservoir gates to protest water payments to the U.S.—prompting
the Mexican government to take legal action against them.
Similarly, representatives of Mexico’s border livestock industry
have been vocal in demands for a revision of the 1944 treaty, and Mexico’s
multi-stakeholder Consejo del Río Bravo (Rio Bravo Basin Council)
has openly criticized Fox, the CNA, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
for agreeing to make payment on Mexico’s water debt to the United
States during a period of drought.
A recent water conservation proposal by the Fox administration that would
double water fees for agricultural users and eliminate water subsidies
for certain industries has also fueled unrest.
The Current Situation
Mexican officials have repeatedly said that although Mexico would like
to fulfill the terms of the 1944 treaty, for the moment it doesn’t
have enough water to do so. Texas farmers, however, say that during the
1992-97 period Mexico’s Conchos basin received about 80% of its normal
rainfall, and that because flows in Mexican tributaries did not cease
entirely the drought has not been “extraordinary.” Some also
say that Mexico is ignoring the treaty in order to ensure water for its
own border agricultural industry.
Mexico counters that the lower levels of rainfall do constitute an extraordinary
drought—an assertion that is at least partially supported by the
fact that only during the late 1940s and early 1950s was average annual
rainfall in the Conchos basin less than it was during the 1995-99 period.
According to Alberto Székely, an adviser to Mexico’s government
regarding binational water issues, over the summer of 2001 Mexico only
received half the rainfall it had projected under a worst-case scenario
developed earlier this year.
“The extraordinary drought has lasted almost ten years now,”
he says. “The reserves in Mexican reservoirs have dropped 81%, and
this year, the worst year of the drought so far, it has rained half of
what it did in 2000, which was at the time considered the worst year.”
Officials with the CNA add that though there is some water in Mexico’s
border reservoirs, the storage capacity of those reservoirs is less than
assumed by the United States, due to sedimentation. Mexico also contends
that under the 1944 treaty it is entitled to withhold enough water in
reservoir storage to meet water demands in the Conchos basin before water
is released to the Río Bravo to satisfy treaty requirements, as
long as it pays back the water in the subsequent five-year cycle.
Complicating matters, say experts, is the fact that even if water were
transferred en masse from reservoirs in the Río Conchos basin to
meet needs in the Rio Grande basin, estimates are that as much as half
of it would be lost to evaporation and seepage during transfer.
The two presidents and members of their cabinets discussed the current
imbroglio during the Bush-Fox meeting this past September but did not
come up with a concrete plan for resolving it. According to a joint statement
issued afterwards, the two leaders “had a frank discussion about
water resources and the importance of living up to our mutual treaty obligations”
and agreed that “this could be well served by greater cooperation
aimed at more effective watershed management and improved infrastructure,
including formation of a joint advisory council.”
Sources in Washington indicate that negotiations have reached a temporary
impasse. Mexico insists that it will repay the water it owes as required
under the treaty by the end of the current five-year cycle, which comes
in October 2002, but that it cannot release any water at this time.
“The government of Mexico has reiterated and will continue to reiterate
that it is going to live up to its obligations under the treaty. As soon
as there is precipitation, there will be transfers accordingly,”
says Székely.
Meanwhile, the IBWC continues to lead discussions regarding the possibility
of diverting water from alternate Mexican reservoirs. Language in Minute
307 specifies that should Mexico miss the July 31 deadline, “consideration
could be given” to transferring water from four reservoirs in Mexico’s
interior to resolve the situation. According to the IBWC’s U.S. section,
there is sufficient storage in Mexico’s reservoirs for “some”
of that water to be released.
At the same time, sources at the IBWC say they expect the court injunction
preventing Mexico from delivering runoff from unmeasured Rio Grande tributaries
to be lifted soon. According to Sally Spener, an agency spokesperson,
the U.S. section has received verbal indications from Mexico that once
that happens an additional volume of approximately 80,000 AF would be
credited to the United States. That amount is equivalent to 100% of the
water from unmeasured tributaries that would have been delivered between
July 21 and September 30 under Minute 307 had the Mexican court injunction
not been filed.
Additionally, says Székely, the two countries are organizing a
binational congress as a first step in implementing the sustainable management
plan for the RG/RB basin called for under Minute 307. The negotiator adds
that the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska
has been enlisted to develop a long-term binational drought management
plan for the RG/RB basin and that experts with the Department of Civil
and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle
have been contracted to help Mexico develop an emergency plan for managing
the current drought.
Charting the Future
Water management policy is one of this desert region’s thorniest
issues. Water politics in the Texas/Mexico Rio Grande basin involve many
different and sometimes powerful interests, and often these interests
are in direct competition, leaving only a narrow middle ground.
This wide variety of interests and the tendency for water issues to become
highly politicized pose substantial barriers to progressive changes in
water management policy in both Texas and Mexico.
Another obstacle to change is the lack of political will on the part
of decisionmakers to confront the many complex and controversial issues
surrounding water management policy in the Texas/Mexico Rio Grande basin.
Political will often requires a broader public awareness and knowledge
of the issues than generally exists relative to most water management
issues. In most areas of the basin—except during severe drought periods—discussion
of water management issues is often confined to professionals, government
officials, and interest groups, instead of occurring in newspapers, on
television, or in other spheres of general public participation.
This situation is beginning to change somewhat. Examples include the
relatively high profile of water issues in the El Paso/Juárez area
and the widespread publicity given to the demands of farmers in the Lower
Rio Grande Valley that Mexico repay its debt under the 1944 water treaty.
The latter situation has yet to move beyond accusations and finger pointing,
but that may change in the near future. South of the line, Mexico’s
traditional centralization of water management authority in the federal
government leaves states and local governments, water users, and other
interests fighting for a voice. On paper, the Río Bravo Consejo
de Cuenca provides one potential venue for more non-federal involvement,
but it has not materialized as an active or influential forum. Still,
the creation of basin councils in Mexico is a positive development.
Finally, as the current controversy surrounding Mexico’s recent
inability to make partial payment under Minute 307 suggests, fundamental
problems related to binational water management mechanisms need to be
addressed. Clearly, at a minimum there is a need for the two countries
to better define the term “extraordinary drought” and, possibly,
to clarify other provisions of the treaty. Additionally, it is highly
likely that in the future there will be increasing controversy over the
use of transboundary groundwater stores, but the 1944 Treaty is silent
on that matter.
Despite these formidable obstacles, there are some prospects for progressive
change on the horizon. Though the recent drought in northern Mexico has
caused devastation to many farmers and ranchers and has ignited a war
of words on the part of Lower Rio Grande Valley farmers, it has also had
the effect of elevating Rio Grande basin water management issues on the
binational, national, and state policy agendas. This has coincided with
a national, and even global, focus on freshwater supply issues that provides
an important backdrop. The central challenge is to maintain this level
of interest and engagement even if the immediate effects of the drought
subside in the next few years.

George Kourous directs the IRC’s BIOS program. Parts of this article
were adapted from two reports, Water Management in the Binational
Texas/Mexico Rio Grande/Río Bravo Basin , by Mary Kelly (publication
pending) of the Texas Center for Policy Studies and El Agua en La
Frontera , issued by el Centro de Estudios Fronterizos y Promoción
de los Derechos Humanos, A.C. in July 2001. For more information on
the TCPS and CEFPRODHAC, visit www.texascenter.org
and www.giga.com/~cefprodh/ ,

Correction: In part one of this article, we incorrectly attributed the
U.S. obligation to release 60,000 AF of Rio Grande water to Mexico to
the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty. In fact, that requirement is outlined
under the 1906 Convention between the United States and Mexico on Equitable
Distribution of the Waters of the Rio Grande. We regret the error.

Published by the Interhemispheric Resource Center’s
Americas Program . All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: "The Border’s Troubled
Waters: Parts I and II," Americas Program Feature (Silver City, NM:
Interhemispheric Resource Center, December 2001).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/articles/2001/bl83.html