International The Border Region

Although international rivers have always been difficult to manage, the Colorado is especially interesting because of its enormously diverse and multiple overlapping jurisdictions, the strong contrast in legal and administrative styles of the two neighboring countries, and the exceptional degree of freedom and influence of the informal, nongovernmental sector in the United States (Varady et al., 2001).

In 1964, an international issue erupted when the Mexican government complained that deliveries of Colorado River water with salt concentrations of 2000 ppm were affecting crops and asserted that this was in violation of the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty . Salinity had become a major problem for Mexican agriculture in the Mexicali Valley after the 75,000-acre Well ton-Mohawk Irrigation District was developed in southern Arizona and the filling of Lake Powell had reduced flows in the river. After 10 years of negotiations, Mexico and the United States signed Minute No. 242 ("minute" in this context means an amendment to the 1944 treaty) in 1973, which established salinity standards for water delivered upstream of Morelos Dam (Mumme, 2000). The advantages included better relations between the United States and Mexico, with Mexico also waiving compensatory payments for historical damages.

Per Minute No. 242, the United States must deliver water to Mexico with an average annual salinity concentration no greater than 115 ppm +/- 30 ppm over the average annual salinity concentration of the river at Imperial Dam. Thus, an increase in salinity at Imperial Dam directly translates to an allowable increase in salinity of water delivered to Mexico and an increase in salinity of water flowing past Morelos Dam. Salinity is projected to increase at Imperial Dam to 980 mg/l by the year 2015 without additional controls (Bureau of Reclamation, 2002).

A parallel but more complex crisis is affecting much of the region's groundwater resources, which are largely outside the scope of the legal arrangements and beyond the control of most administrative agencies on both sides of the border. Although the states recognize the relationship between groundwater and surface water, their laws generally do not reflect this relationship. Groundwater use is poorly measured, but is generally acknowledged in many areas to exceed natural recharge. In times of low surface flow, water managers throughout the West tend to turn to groundwater as a backup supply. Because groundwater is frequently hydrologically connected to surface water, the generally unregulated use of groundwater frequently causes negative impacts on surface water users. Groundwater management issues are increasingly affecting the Colorado.

In December 2000, the two countries, acting through the International Boundary Waters Commission (IBWC), adopted Minute No. 306, recognizing a shared interest in the preservation of the riparian and estuarine ecology of the Colorado delta. Conflict over the delta has not fully developed in part because of wet episodes in the delta during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite extensive destruction, some recovery has been seen in the delta since 1981, when new flows coming from saline irrigation water or flood control operations were redirected, creating the Cienega de Santa Clara. This cienega has developed into an important habitat that is dependent on the continued irrigation return flows from the United States. Proposals by U.S. interests to operate the desalter at Yuma (built to treat Colorado River water to meet the standards in Minute 242, but never brought online) would increase water supply availability in the United States and meet U.S. obligations to Mexico. The relative roles of Mexico and the United States in resolving this issue are still evolving.

Recent efforts to deal with direct cross-border concerns include the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC) and the North American Development Bank (NAD Bank). The BECC and NAD Bank constitute a partial response to the water-related problems along the U.S.-Mex-ico border (Milich and Varady, 1999). The BECC offers a new kind of forum in which border residents are able to address problems they have in common. It is governed by a binational ten-member board of directors, which includes two members of the IBWC. Its charter explicitly emphasizes public participation. The BECC is charged with certifying proposed border infrastructure projects. BECC criteria include compliance with environmental requirements and maintenance of financial stability (Milich and Varady, 1999). Once a project is certified by the BECC it becomes eligible for financing by the NAD Bank. The BECC places regional proximity to the border ahead of national concerns. However, it is still too early to assess whether it can serve as a template for transboundary environmental institutions and whether there will be substantial implications for management of the Colorado River.

Under Minute 307 of the IBWC, the United States accepted Mexico's proposal for the two countries to cooperate in the fields of drought planning and sustainable use of the basin. However, in the United States, water rights and quantity management are generally the responsibility of states, not the federal government (Getches, 2003). Both surface water and groundwater are considered public resources subject to state law, with rights and permits to use water granted to individuals and water providers. Owners of water delivery and treatment infrastructure are typically not the states but local governments or private water companies and irrigation districts. A better understanding of the links between domestic concerns in both countries and international agreements is needed in order to construct a more complete picture of issues underlying cross-scale water-related disputes.

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