With a Senate Hearing tomorrow and a meeting of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Thursday, we’re starting to see the public rollout of a Colorado River management agreement between the United States and Mexico that now looks like it’s on track to be signed within the next few months.
The biggest clue that this could really happen is that they’ve changed the name from “Minute 32x” to “Minute 323”. The placeholder “x” meant the agreement would be signed sometime, changing it to a “3” suggest people are confident enough that it’s really going to happen soon that they’ve assigned it a number and put it in the queue.
While the full agreement has not been made public, the negotiating team has put together a detailed set of talking points to be taken to the various water agency boards and state agencies on the U.S. side. Here’s the copy included in the CAWCD board packet for Thursday’s meeting:
Quibbling aside about whether or not we’re in fact in an era of “historic collaboration on the Colorado River” (really, Gary, “fake news”?), this is evidence that we are, in fact, in an era of historic collaboration on the Colorado River.
Embedded in the deal are two important pieces.
The first is Mexico’s continued participation in the current binational water conservation scheme, in which water users in both the United States and Mexico agree to curtail their water use as Lake Mead drops. This is the follow-on to Minute 319, the historic 2012-U.S.-Mexico agreement that broke down the key barriers to international management on the river.
The second piece is what’s called in the new minute the “Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan”, which is the international flavor of what’s known by the norteños as the “Drought Contingency Plan”. This is the agreement that ratchets up the conservation, making deeper cuts to water use sooner. One of the lawyers in the audience will probably lecture me if I call this piece “contingent” or “trigger” or whatever, but the fact is that this language lays out the details of Mexico’s participation in the new DCP scheme, but it doesn’t take effect until folks on the U.S. side approve the DCP.
Its inclusion here, and the fact that it’s now being made public, is crucial evidence that folks in the United States have settled on the final terms of the deal and we’re not just in the “working out the formalities” part of the process. There’s always been a chicken/egg problem about which would come first, the DCP or the U.S.-Mexico minute, because each depends on the other. The solution has been a contingent minute (don’t scold, lawyer friends) through which Mexican participation is contingent on the separate deal within the U.S. being signed. The only way folks are willing now to go forward with the U.S.-Mexico piece is because they’re confident that the U.S. piece will follow.
These “minutes” (they function kinda like amendments to the U.S.-Mexico treaty, but don’t call them that the lawyers will scold you) part part of a trend away from conflict and toward collaboration as the Colorado River crosses its international border. They add a crucial piece – a joining of water management institutions across the international border in an effort to manage the Colorado River as one river.
Together, these steps demonstrate the extraordinary pivot on the Colorado River from Mark Reisner’s “most litigated river in the entire world” to a system in which the parties stay out of the courts and international tribunals and negotiate mutually beneficial agreements to deal with the Colorado’s problem of overallocation.
Lots more in the agreement, including more provisions for environmental flows in the Colorado River Delta and cross-border water conservation collaborations.
This is a big deal.