Mexico makes good on water debt to US

National Guard troops equipped with riot gear stand guard at Las Pilas dam, two days after withdrawing from nearby La Boquilla dam after clashing with hundreds of farmers, in Camargo, Chihuahua State, Mexico, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Thursday he regretted the killing of a woman and the wounding of her husband following a Tuesday clash between National Guard troops and farmers over water. (AP Photo Christian Chavez)

After nearly a year of uncertainty about whether Mexico would be able to fulfill its water debt to the United States, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that the two countries have reached an agreement to satisfy the debt by Friday, just one day before the treaty deadline to do so is set to expire.

Under the terms of the agreement — known as Minute No. 325 and which was signed by representatives from both nations during an outdoor event in Cuidad Juarez Wednesday — Mexico will fulfill the remainder of its five-year obligation to the U.S. by transferring ownership of water already stored at the Amistad and Falcon International Dams.

“This agreement helps ensure that water obligations will be met before the end of this cycle, providing a much-needed resource to communities in the region,” Abbott said via a news release Thursday.

“This water is essential for Texans along the Rio Grande to grow crops, provide food, and support local municipalities and businesses,” Abbott said.

TREATY OBLIGATIONS

The United States and Mexico share water resources from the numerous waterways that crisscross the border between them. Access to and use of those resources is governed by a 1944 treaty which spells out the volumes of water each country is entitled to from various watersheds.

Under the terms of the treaty, the U.S. is obligated to furnish Mexico with some 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually. Meanwhile, Mexico is required to allocate to the U.S. one-third of the water from the six tributaries that feed into the Rio Grande.

However, the treaty allows Mexico to fulfill that allotment, which amounts to approximately 1.75 million acre-feet, over the span of five years. Ideally, Mexico would deliver an average of 350,000 acre-feet of water per year in order to meet its commitment, but that doesn’t always happen.

Mexico ended the 2010 to 2015 five-year cycle in a deficit. The country made up the shortfall over the course of the current 2015 to 2020 cycle, but by late last year it became apparent that Mexico was looking at ending a second consecutive cycle with a delinquency.

While the treaty contains provisions for rectifying an outstanding debt from one cycle, it also specifies that Mexico must not accrue a delinquency in two consecutive cycles, regardless of whether the delinquency from the first cycle is corrected.

Last December, U.S. officials began sounding the alarm that Mexico was again in danger of not meeting its water debt for the current cycle, which ends Saturday. In the months that followed, Mexico made little progress despite increasingly urgent entreaties from International Boundary and Water Commissioner Jayne Harkins, as well as federal lawmakers and Gov. Abbott.

By early September, the country still owed the U.S. nearly a year’s worth of water. — some 307,000 acre-feet.

“It was pretty obvious that they waited too long to start (paying the debt),” said Sonny Hinojosa, general manager of Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 2.

Complicating matters, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador faced criticism and opposition from lawmakers within his own country regarding the water debt.

And earlier this year, farmers in Chihuahua took over La Boquilla Dam, whose reservoir serves as the primary water source to the Rio Grande. Despite several clashes with the Mexican military, and the deaths of at least two protestors, the farmers maintain control of the dam today.

THE AGREEMENT

Speaking of the agreement that officials signed Wednesday, U.S. Secretary to the IBWC Sally Spener declined to comment on how those issues may have affected the United States’ ability to negotiate Mexico’s fulfillment of its obligations.

“The Mexican federal government always stated its intent to fulfill its treaty obligations and they did just that,” Spener said via phone Thursday.

However, no water will be moving as a result of the agreement. Instead, Spener explained the water debt will be satisfied by ledger. “When a transfer is made in national ownership in the international reservoirs, we refer to this as a ‘paper transfer’ because it does not require water to move from one place to another,” Spener said.

Essentially, the ownership of over 100,000 acre-feet of water that’s already being stored in Amistad and Falcon reservoirs in the name of Mexico will be transferred to the U.S.

“After this transfer is made, Mexico is going to have very, very low percentage of ownership in the international reservoirs. Somewhere between 1 and 2% ownership,” Hinojosa, the irrigation district manager, explained.

The treaty gives Mexico various avenues to pursue paying the debt, including by diverting a greater percentage of water from the six tributaries to the Rio Grande.

According to Hinojosa, Mexico diverted fully 100% of the six tributaries’ flow toward the Rio Grande. But it still wasn’t enough, thus prompting the transfer of ownership of water already stored in the two international reservoirs.

LINGERING FRUSTRATIONS

Though the debt will be satisfied as of Friday, Hinojosa remains concerned about Mexico’s ability to fulfill its obligations in the future.

Weather forecasters are predicting a La Niña cycle that will bring hotter than average temperatures this winter and spring, as well as below average amounts of rainfall. While most farmers in the Rio Grande Valley have enough water for their crops for now, Mexico’s average annual water debt accounts for approximately one-third of the 1.1 million acre-feet of water used by the Valley each year.

A prolonged La Niña could mean local farmers would need to draw more water for irrigation. In 2011, when severe drought struck the Valley, the local demand for water jumped to 1.5 million acre-feet, Hinojosa said.

Mexico’s unpredictability in paying its debt, however, makes it difficult for farmers to plan in advance. Hinojosa worries that, as the new five-year cycle begins on Sunday, Mexico will again fall behind on its obligations — to the potential detriment of local farmers.

“It’s dry to the west (in Mexico). I mean, you can look at the drought maps and it’s dry. And that’s where the watershed is. So that’s why I’m saying it’s going to be interesting after next year,” Hinojosa said.

He also expressed frustrations that, while the U.S. goes to great lengths to allocate its Colorado River water obligations to Mexico first and foremost each year before dividing the remaining water among domestic users, Mexico seems to address its obligations to the United States at the eleventh hour.

Hinojosa wishes Mexico’s fulfillment schedule was more reliable.

That reliability may soon be on the horizon because the terms of Minute No. 325 include provisions for the two nations to develop better water management policies, Spener said.

“One of the important aspects of Minute 325 is it formalizes establishment of a technical work group and a policy work group,” Spener said.

“The notion is that we would have an understanding that under certain conditions this is what everyone would expect … so that there isn’t this unpredictability, that we’re not in a position like we were at the end of this cycle wondering how the final deliveries were going to be made,” she added.

Minute No. 325 also includes one final provision: that, in the event Mexican border towns experience water shortages, the United States will provide water as humanitarian aid.

Any water thus delivered by the U.S. to Mexico will have to be repaid, Spener said.

darevalo@mvtcnews.com

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to note that the Minute No. 325 agreement was signed in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.