Friday, May 24th 2019

US – Mexico Sign Drought Deal Over Colorado River Water

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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Colorado River Water Usage

Lake Mead with its historically low water levels easily visible in white. This is a telltale symbol of the drought that this region has faced.

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The Colorado River provides fresh drinking water to 40 million people. It is the lifeblood of the American West. However, it doesn’t only supply the United States, several Mexican states also depend on water from the Colorado River.

Colorado River Drought Deal Signed:

Not only do 7 American states (the so-called Colorado River Compact consisting of: Nevada, Arizona, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah) rely upon water from the Colorado River, but also several northwestern Mexican states as well. On May, 19th, 2019, after nearly 6 years of meticulous negotiation, a deal was signed at the Hoover Dam to enact Colorado River’s Drought Contingency Plans. This deal was supported by the Trump Administration and all 14 senators of the 7 states involved in the water usage of the Colorado River.

The deal agrees to several points of interest, namely Arizona and Nevada agreeing to voluntarily cut their water usage from the Colorado River. Eventually, California will have to follow suit. This is all to ensure that the water levels in Lake Mead—the reservoir in Nevada where much of the water for the Colorado River is stored for later use—do not fall below a certain point. Despite an excellent rainy season, Lake Mead is currently around 38% capacity with a general negative trend. Drought measures, not only for Lake Mead but the entire Colorado River, seems a wise precaution—though some researchers insist that the conflict is about more than just the quantity of water in Lake Mead.

*For an interactive map of water usage in the American West including rivers and reservoirs, click here.

Since the year 2000, Lake Mead’s water level has dropped 130 feet—an indicator that the water usage from this precious reservoir is not sustainable. As part of the deal, Nevada will give up 8,000 acre-feet starting January of 2020. Arizona takes a far bigger cut, relinquishing 192,000 acre-feet of water in the next year.

*One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two Las Vegas homes with water for a year.

Furthermore, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico agree to send more water downstream, ensuring hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam and keeping Lake Powell with an adequate water level as well.

California will only join in these cuts if the water levels drop 42 feet below its current levels. California’s Imperial Irrigation District—who is the largest user of water from the Colorado River—would not sign the Drought Contingency Plans—because it could not secure $200M USD of matched funds from the Trump Administration to address environmental concerns at a salty lake southeast of Los Angeles called the Salton Sea.

California’s other major water agency, The Metropolitan Water District (which serves greater Los Angeles), in effect removed California’s Imperial Irrigation District from the proceedings in order to prevent potentially-harmful delays to the urban metropolis. To do so, however, The Metropolitan Water District took on the pledged amount that was the responsibility of the Imperial Irrigation District—bringing the total to a staggering 2 million acre-feet between now and 2026 when the deal expires. Though Imperial Irrigation District has filed a lawsuit, the deal seems to have moved forward for now, and the two California water agencies are still in talks in hopes of coming to a resolution.

In addition, Mexico agrees to leave more river water in Lake Mead to ensure its stability and adequate levels, with Mexico’s first contribution of 41,000 acre-feet beginning sometime next year. It is not yet clear how these water cuts will affect the northwestern states of Mexico. In exchange for this, the US agrees to invest $31.5M USD in water conservation projects in Mexico.

The Colorado River supplies water to both states in the Baja Peninsula, including tourist hotspots like Los Cabos and Tijuana. The water that flows to Mexico is collected at Morelos Dam, near Los Algodones in Baja California. There it goes to irrigate the Mexicali Valley farmland and supply cities like Mexicali, Tecate, and Tijuana.

A Brief History of the Colorado River and Mexico:

The Colorado River dispute has been a point of contention between the United States and Mexico for over a century. In 1884, an International Boundary and Water Commission (IBaWC) was established to negotiate water usage between the two countries—specifically concerning the Tijuana River, the Rio Grande, and the Colorado River.

The main body of legislation came towards the end of WWII when the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944 was signed. Overseen by the IBaWC, the treaty guarantees Mexico 1.5M acre-feet of water each year, as well as an additional 200,000 acre-feet of water in years when there is a surplus.

Though the water quantity was guaranteed, the water quality was not, which became an issue during the 1950s when rapid industrialization of the American Southwest left high demands on the Colorado River. It was not until 1974 that the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944 was interpreted to ensure the same water quality as that used in the United States.

This latest accord is entitled Minute No. 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty. In effect, it is a small amendment, which occurs every several years—this one expiring in 2026. Future concessions are likely in the face of drought coupled with the ever-increasing demand for water from large cities. In 7 years, we will see whether these measures were enough to ensure the water levels in Lake Mead.

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