NAFTA and the Colorado River

With campaign rhetoric suggesting the likelihood of a changing relationship with Mexico, it is worth asking how a Trump administration might influence ongoing binational collaborations on the Colorado River.

The important caveat here is that, as one of my friends put it in the days after the election, we chose Door Number Two on Nov. 8 and for large swaths of the policy world, including western water, we have no idea what’s behind it. But we do know that as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump suggested dissatisfaction with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 deal among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. How that dissatisfaction might manifest itself in actual policy is one of those “Door Number Two” things, but at least it gives us a starting point.

Management of Colorado River as it crosses from the United States into Mexico is governed by the 1944 Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande. Because the treaty left ambiguity about important issues, especially environmental issues like water quality and the sharing of surplus and shortage, a series of addenda, called “minutes”, have been negotiated over the years to clarify its terms. In recent years, the most important of those has been Minute 319, signed in 2012, an interim deal that clarified shortage rules and creating the framework for important environmental restoration activities on the Mexican side of the border.

NAFTA was first and foremost a trade deal, but it also created new tools for collaborative environmental work along the US-Mexico border. In a paper published earlier this year* (behind paywall), Colorado State University political scientist Stephen Mumme argued that those NAFTA-related tools for collaboration around the shared resources of the border region played an important role in the complex multi-party negotiations that led to the Minute 319 environmental success.

In particular, NAFTA-related reforms to the International Boundary and Water Commission, the binational governance thingie that manages the shared rivers as they cross from one nation to another or flow along their shared borders, played a key role in enabling the discussions that led to Minute 319, Mumme argues:

There is no question that the NAFTA side agreements and related programs altered the institutional environment for transboundary water management along the border. They established three new international agencies, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC), and the North American Development Bank (NADB). They strengthened implementation of the La Paz Agreement along the border. They amplified natural resources policy cooperation through the Trilateral Committee on Wildlife. New domestic advisory bodies, focused on sustainable development and environmental protection on each side of the border, were established. The political process associated with NAFTA proved a catalyst for NGO engagement and network along and across the border, strengthening the capacity of civil society to collaborate and influence water governance. These changes, in turn, altered the structural context for transboundary water management, triggering adjustments at the IBWC and broadening its agenda.

There’s a lot more to the 319 deal than that, especially the expanded role for environmental NGOs that followed a path of collaboration rather than litigation (buy my book for that story!). But Mumme argues that NAFTA’s environmental framework played a key role.

Party at San Luis as the Colorado River returns, March 25, 2014, by John Fleck

Party at San Luis as the Colorado River returns, March 25, 2014, by John Fleck

What that means for the future, as US and Mexican negotiators race to try to finish a follow-on deal before Jan. 20, remains one of those “Door Number Two” unknowns. It seems unlikely that the environmental successes, which have been viewed as a positive on both sides of the border, would easily slip away, however the new administration approaches the task of making good on Donald Trump’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric.

But it’s perhaps worth noting that the only negative news story I’m aware of about the 2014 Minute 319 environmental pulse flow was published by Breitbart, making the “Why waste water in a drought?” argument. And Breitbart’s former chief executive, Steve Bannon, has just been named chief strategist and senior counselor to the next President of the United States. I’m not sure that reading old Breitbart stories to try to figure out what might be behind Door Number Two is the best approach, but I’m hunting my clues where I can find them.

* Mumme, Stephen P. “Scarcity and Power in US–Mexico Transboundary Water Governance: Has the Architecture Changed since NAFTA?Globalizations (2016): 1-17.