In an arid land, no resource is more precious than water. Every drop counts.
The almost 40 million people in the western United States who depend every day on a healthy Colorado River – for their drinking water, for agriculture, industry and recreation – have acquired an acute understanding of that reality.
A 16-year drought has brought the Colorado River basin to the brink of shortages. With falling reservoir levels has come rising anxiety about the reliability of water supply.
Even after last winter’s heavy snowpack in the Rockies, water levels at Lake Mead are hovering perilously close to 1,075 feet, the line at which Arizona and Nevada would begin facing official water shortages.
That’s why we’re celebrating a new nine-year agreement reached between the United States and Mexico on how to manage the Colorado River’s water. The deal – technically known as Minute 323 – will increase water security for users in both countries and promote more efficient water management in a fast-growing, increasingly thirsty region.
The agreement commits both countries to voluntary water cutbacks, during dry periods, to prevent the declaration of a water shortage. Mexico will continue to be able to store its water in U.S. reservoirs – saving up water in average and wet years for use in dry ones and providing another much-needed cushion against a shortage declaration.
In addition, U.S. water users will invest $31.5 million to improve water efficiency in Mexico – through improved lining of irrigation canals, better conservation practices on farms and other measures – in exchange for a one-time water exchange.
The agreement contains an added sweetener designed to encourage additional Colorado River water conservation measures. Mexico has agreed to additional voluntary water reductions that exceed amounts specified in an earlier 2012 binational water agreement, Minute 319. But Mexico’s additional restrictions will only kick in if the Colorado River’s lower basin states agree among themselves to their own additional cutbacks through a new drought contingency plan. We hope that’s enough incentive for California, Arizona and Nevada to take action – success on the Colorado River will only come with co-operation from all stakeholders.
It’s hard to overstate, though, the significance of what’s been achieved with the U.S.-Mexico agreement, the latest of a series of addendums to a 1944 treaty between the two countries.
At a time when U.S.-Mexico relations have been strained, and bipartisan cooperation of any sort in the U.S. is a rarity, the deal shows what’s possible when state and local governments, water users and the federal governments in both countries unite around a common goal.
The Trump Administration deserves credit for pushing this ‘minute’ to completion, as does the former Obama administration, which built the framework for the agreement. In addition, the basin states, the water users, and the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) deserve praise for their steadfast work and support.
The increased certainty about water supply is good for the West’s economy, but it’s also good for the environment, particularly in the parched Colorado River Delta.
The deal will provide at least 210,000 acre-feet of water for riparian restoration in the Delta. The Colorado River now rarely reaches the ocean – the last time was following the famous ‘pulse flow’ in 2014, through a planned release from the Morelos Dam. But the Delta provides critical habitat for migratory birds and wildlife and vegetation that can thrive with even small increases in water supply.
The philanthropic community and NGOs – through the Raise the River coalition – will play a critical role in the success of the binational agreement. Philanthropic organizations in both the United States and Mexico, including the Walton Family Foundation, and NGOs have pledged to share the cost of the Delta restoration work, the water needed for restoration, and monitoring with the U.S. and Mexican governments.
The reality of the Colorado is that it is a shared river. Its long-term health depends on the shared commitments and sacrifices of people on both sides of the border.
We can’t control the amount of water Mother Nature delivers to the Colorado River. Climate variability is posing a new threat. While last winter delivered one of the biggest snowfalls in decades, Colorado River water storage is still only 55%. And the chances of a declared water shortage in 2019 remains above 30%.
At times like these, any good news is welcome.
The new U.S.-Mexico water agreement gives us new tools – and better odds – to withstand drier times in the future. It proves that water can be a uniting force.