Managing Water on the U.S.-Mexico Border
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It is hardly an exaggeration that while water literally defines and constitutes two thirds of the U.S.-Mexico boundary—along the Rio Grande and a short stretch of the Colorado River—it is the lack of water that so often defines the border region. From the Gulf Coast to the coastal Pacific, the boundary traverses some of the most arid lands of North America. This hydrological fact drives the development of the border region. Water availability, including its use and disposition, is central to the livelihoods and well-being of border communities from Brownsville and Matamoros to San Diego and Tijuana. It is also the basis of some of the most important agreements of record between the United States and Mexico. Today, in the early decades of the 21st century, sharing and husbanding the border’s scarce water resources are more important than ever, and more challenging.
This paper profiles the current state of water management in the border region with particular attention to the manner in which regional growth dynamics and changing patterns of water availability are presently altering the region’s water security and challenging existing institutional arrangements for managing water resources. It does not purport to offer an in-depth analysis of the many particular water management dilemmas in the border region, but instead aims to identify the principal sources of binational contention and the prospects for further binational cooperation in confronting the twin challenges facing the region today. These twin challenges—rising water demand and persistent long-term diminishment of the region’s reliable riparian water supply—are presently on a collision course, avoidance of which will demand significant adjustments in the way water is managed at both the domestic and international levels. The focus here, however, is on the binational aspects of border water management and strengthening cooperation between the United States and Mexico in meeting these challenges.
This paper is divided into seven sections. The first section briefly summarizes prevailing hydrological forecasts of water availability in the border region. The second section examines current patterns of water use in border agriculture and municipalities. The third section looks at the international arrangements in place for managing scarcity on the treaty rivers, how persistent drought is challenging these arrangements, and where international cooperation on shortage sharing has advanced and where it has not. The fourth section considers the problem of sharing transboundary aquifers. Section five examines the problem of transboundary sanitation and the challenge of managing wastewater along the boundary. The sixth section looks at a recent instance of water conflict along the boundary as an example of rising tensions over water in the border region, but also notes how conflicts are driving the quest for solutions to water scarcity. The paper concludes by listing a range of needed policy reforms both the U.S. and Mexican governments should consider as they strive to shore up water security and manage water hazards along the border.