Support on Capitol Hill for a new companion bill to a proposed U.S.-Mexico Trans-Boundary Aquifer Assessment Act (S. 1957) raises hopes of providing some $50 million over the next decade for the first effort to map groundwater resources flowing under the border. The bipartisan legislation promises to reduce widespread confusion over binational water management by establishing an unprecedented, reliable database for decisionmaking.

Like S. 1957, the new H.R. 469, introduced in February, addresses overwhelming border groundwater concerns such as the resources being pumped out of the Hueco and Mesilla aquifers by cities and other users in New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua, as well as those extracted from the Santa Cruz River Valley water table in Arizona and Sonora. Aquifer depletion reduces irrigation and potable supplies. Interference with natural recharge rates also causes ground compression and erosion.

Rational, science-based management of the underground water tables could rely on the proposed comprehensive data set about the entire regional groundwater system. In turn, it would ease cross-border surface water conflict, which has been most evident over the shared Colorado River and Rio Grande Basin with its six Mexican tributaries. As a result of several years of drought, Mexican homes dependent on these sources have been without drinking water and cattle have been dying of dehydration, while Texas irrigators going out of business have sued Mexico for $500 million worth of crop loss and damages under North American Free Trade Agreement provisions.

The focus on aquifer management would complement coast-to-coast efforts to address pollution concerns that have reached their zenith in watersheds such as the Tijuana River, the San Pedro River, and the New River, where domestic sewage, heavy metals from industry, cancerous pesticides, and other detritus have combined to threaten both human life and migratory wildlife. The new data would draw a clear picture of the contaminant levels reaching the aquifers.

New Water Policy Initiatives Good For Neighbors

U.S.-Mexico border water problems, long minimized in the halls of federal government and the newsrooms of mass media, are capturing some welcome attention in policy circles these days.

On March 8, a high-level advisory committee called the Good Neighbor Environmental Board (GNEB) submitted three strident recommendations to the U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush on binational water responsibilities.

On March 10, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez to a plan for repaying Mexico’s massive, 12-year-old water debt to the United States under a 1944 treaty for sharing Rio Grande and Colorado River resources. Perhaps more importantly, they expressed support for increased collaboration on water management.

Meanwhile, companion proposals that congressional leaders are quietly advancing in Washington, DC, S. 1957 and H.R. 469, lay the groundwork and channel the funding necessary for beginning to carry out the recommendations and plans.

The U.S.-Mexico border vicinity is arid at best, and several recent years of drought have accentuated this. Complicating the area’s water quantity and quality problems are its free-trade driven industrial and agricultural development, together with a related population boom.

Incredibly, no scientific diagnosis has ever been made on which to base binational water basin management. Among the results of this weak planning position are public health problems and costs, degradation of biodiversity, and transgressions against environmental justice. Border activists have insisted for decades that tribal, low-income, and other minority-status community segments on both sides of the border are among the hardest hit. The threat of a dwindling basic resource and its contamination is worsened by risky schemes to arbitrarily privatize the control of its distribution and wrest it of its spiritual significance.

Seeing this, the GNEB dedicated its entire annual report on the border environment to the water issue this year. The board’s “Eighth Report to the President and the Congress of the United States” has three main demands:

“Clarify current responsibilities held by U.S.-Mexico border-region institutions responsible for managing its water resources. Identify jurisdictional gaps and overlaps, interpret missions to reflect changing circumstances, and leverage opportunities for stronger cross-institutional collaboration.

“Develop and sign formal U.S.-Mexico border-region water resources data agreements. Such agreements should support the collection, analysis, and sharing of compatible data across a wide range of uses so that border-region water resources can be more effectively managed.

“Implement a 5-year U.S.-Mexico border-region integrated water resources planning process. Using a stakeholder-driven watershed approach, address immediate concerns in critical areas while pursuing collaborative longer-term strategies.”

The subsequent accord announced by Rice and Derbez displays administration conformity with the GNEB’s directives. It goes beyond an agreement to schedule the pay-off of Mexico’s 716,670-acre-foot water debt. It includes a statement of support for ongoing water conservation projects in each country, in the interest of consolidating efficiency and promoting integrated watershed management techniques.

Now the icing on the cake will be if lawmakers ratify the 10-year, $50 million legislation that would begin to fund these aims.

That spending level is equivalent to less than 50 cents a year for each of the more than 10 million people living in the area spanning the border. With the border population projected to grow, the per capita amount would come out to even less. Border residents have a huge stake in the success of the measure.

But they are not alone. Just as in other parts of the world, national security in the United States and Mexico hinges on efforts such as these that prioritize the public’s means for prevention and peaceful resolution of the disputes arising from competing demands for the finite supply from shared rivers and aquifers.

–Talli Nauman,
IRC Editor at Large

The Senate bill, created and first introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) in November 2003, has passed twice. But it failed to find an echo in the House of Representatives until this year when Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) introduced a comparable version.

A more recent, better-publicized, competing water bill, S. 492, cosponsored by Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Bill Frist (R-TN) promotes privatization of water services as a panacea to cross-border water problems. It is fiercely opposed by the non-profit Public Citizen advocacy group. Unlike S. 492, the Bingaman and Kolbe legislation calls for a diagnosis of groundwater as part of an ongoing joint management project by public agencies.

The U.S.-Mexico Trans-Boundary Aquifer Assessment Act garnered co-sponsorship from Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jon Kyle (R-AZ) in May 2004. It aims to facilitate decisions on water issues by assuring dependable statistics. Working with Mexico as much as practical is a distinct part of the bill’s outlined program, as is coordinating with Indian tribes and border states.

The period of 2005 to 2014 is specified for the appraisal. During that time, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) would use half of the money to characterize, chart, and assess the key aquifers in the U.S.-Mexico border area. The other 50% of the funding would be distributed to border states’ Water Resources Research Institutes (WRRI), branches of a low-profile federal-state partnership agency for technological advancement. An interim report and a final report in 2014 would help expand cross-border record-keeping and investigation.

The bill’s language emphasizes joint participation. The Comisión Internacional de Limites y Aguas (CILA) is the main Mexican authority that would be involved. The CILA is the Mexican sister agency of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), created by the 1944 water treaty. Local utility authorities in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, have expressed keen interest in the outcome of the study. A specific concern of theirs is growth pressures on the El Paso-Juarez-Southern New Mexico area water supplies. But it is unclear how U.S. and Mexican authorities would coordinate efforts during the program, and Mexican officials would have to determine their role.

Bingaman, who is the leading Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, first introduced the bill on the inspiration of a field hearing the committee held in Las Cruces, NM, several years back. At the hearing, Bingaman noted that the long-term availability of groundwater in the border area was seriously in question. He expressed concern over the lack of common understanding of the shared U.S.-Mexican groundwater resources. For his part, Domenici, the chairman of the committee, asserted that water availability is directly linked to the whole economy in the El Paso-Juarez-Southern New Mexico area.

While an amended form of the bill passed twice in the Senate, it has experienced little support in the House. First introduced there in 2004 as an engrossed amendment to H.R. 620 Title VIII, the proposal failed to make it out of the House Committee on Resources. Kolbe chose to sponsor the measure as the independent H.R. 469 this year after Bingaman’s office contacted him. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) recently signed on to the bill. Since the measure is no longer an attachment to another piece of legislation, it has a new chance of succeeding. The goals and priorities of this bill are consistent with the amended form that passed the Senate.

Support for the legislation and its program has emerged from outside of the U.S. Congress. Among the bill’s supporters are the Border Trade Alliance (BTA), the Paso del Norte Water Task Force, and participants of the Sixth Border Institute.

Comprised of both public and private organizations, the BTA is a forum for North American trade and economic development discussions. The BTA monitors and seeks to promote public policy initiatives. Garnering support for this bill in the House is listed as a goal in the organization’s briefings for this year. The alliance has expressed its support for the transboundary assessment program’s potential to improve cooperation between the United States and Mexico, arguing it will give authorities in both countries a better understanding of water resource challenges in the region.

The Paso del Norte Water Task Force is comprised of water managers, users, and citizens from New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua. Cooperative regional water planning is their main ongoing project. They consulted with Bingaman when he was shaping the original bill. Members of the task force include representation from the WRRI at New Mexico State University (NMSU), the CILA-IBWC, and the city utilities of both El Paso and Las Cruces.

Backing from the Sixth Border Institute consists of participants in that cross-boundary, multisector policy recommendation forum, sponsored annually by the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP). The center is maintained by a consortium of five U.S. universities and five Mexican universities, with support from the Environmental Protection Agency and other sources.

The scientific base of the program envisioned in the legislation would foster increasingly knowledgeable border water resource planning. It would provide information on a wide range of groundwater issues includingquantity, quality, and direction of water flow. This in turn would help local authorities deal with water distribution challenges while promoting cooperation on binational and other cross-jurisdictional water management concerns. It would redress the lack of accountability for the groundwater system as a whole in water policy, management, and practices on both sides of the border.

Having already passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee again this year, the fate of the bill is once more in the hands of the House Resource Committee. Its passage would be a victory not only for the border states and their communities but also for binational cooperation for many years to come.