Future challenges along the border
As is typical of most watersheds, especially those in arid climates, water is not always accessible in the quantity, quality, or location where it is needed. Over-allocation of available water resources, prolonged droughts, and pollution are common challenges. In the United States-Mexico border region, such challenges have sparked various disputes, most notably pertaining to three primary issues: delivery of water at specified times and volumes, water quality deficiencies mostly related to salinity and pollution, and conservation for the protection of the environment. To date, many of these disputes have been managed under the 1944 Water Treaty by the 1BWC through the minute process, and for water pollution through the NADB funding programs. Two important conflicts have been resolved through IBWC cooperation: Mexico’s water debt to the United States in the Rio Grande for the accounting cycle of 1997-2002; and pulse flow water deliveries in the lower portion of the Colorado River to begin restoration of the river’s delta ecosystem in Mexico, which has been designated as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.47 Other more recent conflicts that have not been fully resolved include the lining of the All-American Canal in Arizona, which lowered groundwater levels across the border in Mexicali, and stormwater pollution flows from Tijuana, Baja California into San Diego, California during precipitation events.
However, as droughts and climate change continue to impact the availability of water resources, and growing communities continue to affect water quality, the challenges facing the border region will need ongoing attention. In addition, the region faces new concerns related to untreated wastewater from collapsing sewer lines in cities adjacent to the international boundary, inadequately operated wastewater treatment plants, and contaminated stormwater from growingcities that primarily flow from Mexico into the United States. Unfortunately, neither country has given sufficient attention to the environmental impacts that these pollution concerns have had on estuaries, fisheries, and recreational areas.
The La Paz Agreement and NAFTA through the NADB Agreement have brought much attention to water issues along the border at the highest levels of government. Key agencies such as the EPA and SE-MARNAT have also entered the water diplomacy arena previously dominated by the 1BWC. This has introduced a different approach to decision-making and water-related project development given the EPA’s public transparency and regular engagement process, which is in sharp contrast to the IBWC’s insular history reinforced by the 1944 Water Treaty’s omission of any required procedures for public participation or review of operations.48 In addition, the public process associated with the La Paz Agreement and NADB Agreement has empowered local communities, states, nongovernmental organizations, and academia to demand more from the IBWC. This unwanted attention from the public has further strengthened the negative perception of an IBWC that is slow to respond to challenges and criticism, interprets its scope very narrowly, and heavily focuses its efforts on engineered solutions.49
Although the NADB has also received the same pressures related to public engagement, unlike the IBWC it has specific requirements for engaging the public. These requirements were likely implemented because the organization was conceived as part of an environmental agenda and the EPA was directly involved in their creation. Furthermore, the EPA has provided the NADB with supplemental funds in the form of grants to address water and sanitation issues, which furthered the latter’s achievements. Those funds were managed by the NADB and were used to leverage matching funds from Conagua and other state programs. These relationships and programs developed a diverse skill set within the NADB related to projects that include engineering, finance, and environmental awareness, as well as public engagement.
The IBWC and NADB have two areas in which their activities overlap. The first relates to water pollution where both organizations worked on the issues. However, while the IBWC has not constructed any major infrastructure in at least 30 years, the NADB regularly continues to conduct ribbon-cutting ceremonies for newly funded infrastructure. Not surprisingly, these efforts have given the NADB a role in water diplomacy as well. The second area of overlap is the limited geographical region in which both organizations work, which
Water diplomacy and shared resources 85 has facilitated a more localized approach. As compared to other federal or development agencies, whose locations are in Washington, DC and Mexico City, the 1BWC and NADB's leadership and staff live in or near border communities and are exposed to the region’s daily challenges. This provides local communities with quick, direct, and low-cost access to the institutions, and sensitizes staff to local needs.
Nonetheless, the differences between the 1BWC and NADB are important. The IBWC functions as two separate but integrated federal agencies with independent sections representing their respective governments. As an institution, the IBWC has had a long history of activity, an established process of operations, a heavy engineering focus, no funding for community infrastructure, and a reputation for being isolated and limited in the interpretation of its own authority. The established purpose, process, and rules that created the agency have remained relatively consistent over its 130 years, and its mandate has been interpreted rather narrowly. As a result, the IBWC could find it difficult to adjust its operations in response to new challenges. Nevertheless, the organization has a strong and stable foundation grounded in long-standing treaties, full federal backing, and assets that it owns and operates.
In contrast, the NADB is an international organization with much less federal oversight, a shorter history, established public engagement processes, multi-skilled binational staff, and available funding for infrastructure. However, its limited mandate and project-specific focus constrains its ability to create policy level and holistic solutions related to water supply and quality.
Despite the IBWC’s stability and NADB’s flexibility, neither provides an ideal model of operation. For example, it is unclear whether either entity has the mandate to address the more than 30 aquifers that traverse the border. With the exception of pumping restrictions on the Yuma Aquifer under Minute 242, none of the aquifers have any management, allocation, or conservation mechanisms. Ironically, groundwater is a major regional concern because subsurface depletion can affect surface flows in adjacent rivers, pollution can negatively impact groundwater quality, and drought can affect both rivers and groundwater. In a similar vein, neither the IBWC nor NADB have the capacity to develop the scientific analyses needed to ascertain how the border region will be affected by climate change. In general, cooperation remains unsystematic and ad hoc and lacks a broader vision for the management of the shared water resources between the two nations.50
86 Maria Elena Giner and Gabriel E. Eckstein