Water deal is key for U.S., Mexico

SignOn San Diego. 23 January 2011.

The challenges facing the United States-Mexico border region get a lot of attention – and deservedly so. The examples of truly bilateral solutions are, however, few in number. That’s one reason why the agreement recently announced by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada to “bank” a portion of Mexico’s Colorado River water allotment in Lake Mead is so important.

The Colorado River’s importance to the Western United States cannot be overstated. Its water powers homes and factories, irrigates fields and pastures, and provides the lion’s share of the basin states’ drinking water. At the same time, growing population, climate change and 11 years of the worst drought in the region’s history have taken their toll, compromising both water quantity and quality.

Western states face dire choices – including water rationing – if Lake Mead water levels continue to drop, and only urgent action can protect the communities, industries and wildlife that depend upon the river to grow and thrive. Last month’s announcement is in direct response to the April 2010 earthquake in Mexicali that wrecked the canals and reservoirs that irrigate northern Mexico’s agricultural breadbasket with water from the Colorado. The agreement gives Mexico time to repair its earthquake-ravaged infrastructure and eventually recall its allotment from storage in Lake Mead.  The agreement also buys Western states a little more time to put long-term water management solutions in place.

This agreement is an example of the kind of creative collaboration recommended by a binational task force of former Mexican and U.S. border officials formed to examine a wide range of seemingly intractable border issues. In the area of water and the environment, the task force’s 2009 consensus report recommended that the United States and Mexico enter a comprehensive agreement to give the International Boundary and Water Commission jurisdiction over transboundary groundwater, allow it to better address environmental concerns and expand its ability to conduct long-range planning to identify opportunities for improved water management. The task force also recommended steps to encourage comprehensive watershed management by including southwest border states in Mexico’s water planning processes.

This new water-banking agreement is an important step toward a new vision for bilateral planning and management. With the support of Secretary Salazar and Secretary Elvira, the IBWC is rolling up its sleeves to resume discussions in 2011 with an eye on a comprehensive basin water agreement that meets the needs of nations, cities, agriculture, industry, and wildlife that depend on a healthy Colorado River.

Kelly served as U.S. attorney for New Mexico from 1993 to 2000. In 2009, he was a member of the Binational Task Force on the United States-Mexico Border. He is now a lawyer in Albuquerque.