Another US-Mexico transboundary water collaboration

The Otay Water District, in California’s San Diego County, is working on a deal to buy water from a desalination plant in Mexico:

Even as California residents debate whether we are free from the drought, local water agencies are looking for ways to increase their water supply.

The Otay Water District is working on a project that would involve desalinated water from a new plant being built in Rosarito, Mexico.

The district wants to build a 3.5 mile pipeline from the U.S-Mexico border to its 36.7 million gallon reservoir in Otay Mesa. The pipeline would transport some of that desalinated water to customers in Spring Valley, La Presa, Rancho San Diego, Jamul and eastern Chula Vista.

The story, by May Tjoa, has a lot of meaty detail on the regulatory and institutional issues involved.

Maite Arce, Mike Connor on the need for collaboration with Mexico on the Colorado River

It is critically important that the new administration reach out to our partners in the Mexican government to seal a new deal on shared water shortages by the 2017 deadline. The agreement will help ensure that adequate water levels are maintained in Lake Mead, thereby protecting the interests of U.S. water users, as well as those in Mexico. Without a completed new agreement, the risk of shortages in the Colorado River’s lower basin will increase, as will the prospect of conflict with Mexico over the 1944 Treaty. Through ongoing cooperation, however, the United States and Mexico can serve as a model for additional agreements throughout the basin that will ensure a secure water future for all who depend on the Colorado River.

That’s Maite Arce of the Hispanic Access Foundation and former Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor, writing yesterday in The Hill.

my interdisciplinary life

university life

My new life at the University of New Mexico includes teaching in and overseeing an interdisciplinary graduate program for water resources students (Not too early to apply for next fall!). But what does this word “interdisciplinary” mean?

My day thus far:

  • morning phone call with law school faculty member about arcane structure of New Mexico’s Central Arizona Project water allocation (yes, we have one)
  • lunch with geographer, economist, and sociologist about project studying resilience in headwaters communities across the Americas
  • Friday afternoon engineering seminar on hydroponics to grow food
  • serendipitous stop in engineering lab to see bench scale work using reverse osmosis membranes to remove organic contaminants from wastewater
  • happy accident in biology talking to a researcher who studies microbial systems in caves, and also works on science communication

I love my new job.

Some context on the Colorado River and the U.S.-Mexico reset

Water in the Río Colorado

Rhea Graham, a savvy veteran of western water governance, made an interesting observation about my book over on Goodreads:

One of the few thoughtful discussions of the Lower Colorado River international boundary, it unwittingly becomes context for the reset of USA-Mexico relations begun in 2017.

I spend a good deal of time in Water is For Fighting Over and Other Myths on the evolution of the relationship between the United States and Mexico in the two nations’ joint management (or, in many cases, mismanagement) of the Colorado River.

The stories of mismanagement and conflict include the time in the 1950s and ’60s when the United States sent water across the border so contaminated that it was largely unusable:

The United States government, straight-faced, advanced a boldly cynical argument. The 1944 treaty between the two nations required that the United States deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to Mexico. The treaty said nothing about the quality of that water. Usable or not, the salty Wellton-Mohawk water met our water-delivery obligation.

This did not sit well with farmers and cities in Mexico, as the Wellton-Mohawk drainage water was strangling Mexican crops and leaving municipal water taken from the Colorado River south of the border undrinkable. The Mexicans complained, and by the early 1960s the tension over the issue had grown from a regional water management problem into an international diplomatic conflict.

A negotiated addendum to the 1944 treaty solved that problem, only to yield to the next conflict, as lining of the All-American Canal reduced groundwater that had become an important source of water on the Mexican side of the border:

Stretching from Imperial Dam to the Imperial Valley in the southeastern deserts of California, the canal passes through great fields of sand dunes. Unlined through most of its history, the canal had always leaked. Adding a concrete lining had long been seen as a way to save water and reduce the allocation owing to Imperial without reducing acreage being farmed. But lining would come with a price. The canal seepage was refilling an aquifer that flows south into Mexico, where Mexicali farmers had come to depend on the flow. The seepage also fed some of the few wild wetlands left in the delta region.

The decision to line the canal was far easier because an international border, and the history, politics, and law associated therewith, blocked one of the most important impacted parties from having a seat at the table when the deals were being made.

My book closes on an optimistic note, as the now-famous “Minute 319” agreement shifted the relationship from one of conflict to joint management of the shared river. Mexican water is now stored in U.S. reservoirs, Mexico in return agreed to share in shortages as the river runs low, and water was set aside for environmental flows in the dried up channel of the river in Mexico.

But as Jeremy Jacobs reported Monday for Greenwire, the clash between our new president and our Mexican neighbors is clouding the future of this incredibly important relationship:

A bilateral agreement specifies exactly how much water Mexico receives, as well as other important factors like how those deliveries are reduced in years of exceptional drought.

It is set to expire this year.

The seven Colorado River Basin states — and particularly Lower Basin states Nevada, Arizona and California — say it’s pivotal that the new administration finalize a new agreement.

But many are now worried that U.S.-Mexico relations have already deteriorated to the point where that may be impossible.

Beneath the sturm und drang of our change in government are layers of practical governance where the policy is actually carried out. Some are sturdy and will persist, and some are under threat. This seems to be the latter.

New Mexico’s Rio Grande forecast: 50-plus percent above average

Runoff this year on the Rio Grande at Otowi in northern New Mexico is forecast to be 50 percent above average, according to preliminary numbers out this morning from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the March-July forecast. There’s always a big spread in the forecast this early in the season because of uncertainty in the weather in the next few months. But we’ve had so much snow in the last six weeks that even the “worst case” right now (a one in ten chance) is above average:

  • average over the last 30 years: 720 thousand acre feet (kaf)
  • one-in-ten driest probability: 735 kaf
  • median: 1080 kaf
  • one-in-ten wettest probability: 1,490 kaf

soil moisture and the new forecast for an above-average year on the Colorado River

A wet January added nearly 3 million acre feet to the Colorado River runoff forecast, with the Feb. 1 forecast update from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center sitting at 9.5 million acre feet for April through July.

That is 34 percent above average.

The snowpack currently sits at 56 percent above average. The dropoff between snowpack and runoff can in part be explained by soil moisture going into the season. As this map of mid-November conditions shows, soils were dry going into the fall:

courtesy CBRFC

That dry soil soaks up a big gulp of water before melting snow can get to the streams and rivers.

that time I wrote about Ed Meese’s unpaid jaywalking ticket

Going through boxes in the garage, I came across this treasure:

Long Arm of law reaches for Meese – again. John Fleck, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, July 23, 1985

I was a young intern at the late, lamented Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Meese, for those too young to remember, was Attorney General of the United States of America under Ronald Reagan.

Good times.