Could the International Boundary and Water Commission serve as an institutional model for other issues with the United States?

Many of the intractable issues facing Mexico and the United States have been on the bilateral agenda for more than half a century. One of the most difficult of these, which has received little attention in the media, in Congress, or among the general public, is the sharing of water resources, namely from the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers, as well as the changing boundaries of the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo in Mexico). The Rio Grande extends the entire length of the Texas-Mexico border, and the Colorado flows between Baja California and Sonora, where it used to empty into the Sea of Cortez—before huge amounts of water were drawn from the river by metropolitan water districts in California, Nevada, and Arizona. Water issues, contrary to what most Americans might think, are complex and significant, and involve numerous actors—local, state, and federal. The International Boundary and Water Commission traces its history back to the second half of the nineteenth century to the establishment of the Boundary Commission in 1889. This commission was created to solve boundary issues resulting from the Rio Grande changing its course. The growth of border populations on both sides of the river in the twentieth century and the expansion of agriculture required decisions to be made about the allocation of water to both countries. Over the years, the salinity of the water increased due to repeated agricultural use in the upper regions of both rivers in the United States. This situation required complex negotiations to prevent the water from being unusable by the time it reached the lower portions of the river. At the end of World War II, in 1944, the commission was given its current name and became responsible for interpreting and applying all water treaties between the two nations. The most- well-known issue resolved by the commission was that of the El Chamizal dispute between Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas, which arose when more than 600 acres of land transferred from one side to the other as a consequence of the changing river channel.

The commission is divided into two organizations on both sides of the border. These counterpart organizations consist of administrative and engineering units, and are headed by a commissioner with diplomatic status. During the past five decades they have developed an enviable, long-term relationship based on objective and meticulous technical information, resolving issues that have local, practical, and domestic consequences, efficiently and satisfactorily. As border issues increase in number and difficulty, the success of the commission offers insights into how comparable bilateral organizations might be structured and staffed to deal with environmental and other complex problems, including undocumented immigration.

 
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