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Judged through the lens of international treaty assessment, the treaty between the United States of America and Mexico regarding the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande, with accompanying Protocol, signed at Washington, D.C., on November 14, 1944, was at the time and is today an extraordinary achievement. Ratified by the U.S. Senate on April 18, 1945, after 21 successive days of hearings conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between January 22 and February 15 and ratified by Mexico’s Senate on October 16, 1945, after nearly a month of hearings in August, the 1944 water treaty ranks without a doubt among the two or three most consequential binational agreements made by the two countries.
Several additional observations may also be made of the treaty and its origins. At its signing, the water treaty was quite arguably Mexico’s most successful negotiation of great consequence with the United States, and the first and still among the few bi-national agreements negotiated from a position of binational power parity between the two countries. It was regarded by its negotiators as an equitable agreement that served the national interests of both countries. Now, 75 years later, that can still be said. It may also be said of both countries that its diplomacy was a triumph for the foreign ministries, which succeeded in advancing a clear national interest over the parochial interests of other federal agencies and, particularly in the U.S., the interests of the individual states in the named river basins. In the absence of the U.S. State Department’s dispositive insistence on subordinating particular state concerns to international objectives, the treaty would never have been written as it was. In the U.S. this meant keeping the pressure on the Rio Grande and Colorado River basin states to reach a linked agreement on water sharing on these rivers at a time that the Roosevelt administration was crafting the post-World War II world order. In Mexico it meant a close working alliance with between the Secretariat of Foreign Relations and the influential National Irrigation Commission in countering the objections of opposition politicians to aspects of the signed water treaty, fully aware of the unique opportunity that offered itself at the time (Enriquez 1976 Samaniego Lopez 2006, 369-378).
Remarkable as it was at its signing and ratification, the treaty was not yet politically consolidated. That would take time, at least 20 years to put a number on it. But the treaty worked and its mechanisms proved sufficient to the anticipated and unexpected challenges it faced. In both design and operational practice the water treaty has gained stature such that today it enjoys a quasi-constitutional standing in binational water governance. To appreciate this achievement it is necessary to consider the various elements that lend the treaty such force and resilience as an international instrument.