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 Binational cooperative agreement will help Rio Grande

By Mary Kelly, For the Express-News

Updated 6:40 pm, Sunday, December 2, 2012

Last month, the United States and Mexico signed a historic cooperative agreement regarding management of the binational Colorado River Basin.

The agreement is known as Minute 319, and it will operate under the 1944 U.S./Mexico treaty that governs the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. The agreement represents a new way of doing business, moving from the past century's almost exclusive focus on water allocation (“who gets what”) toward more flexible water management that will benefit both countries and the environment. The successful negotiation of the minute on the Colorado River provides new hope for the future of the binational Rio Grande basin.

Minute 319 establishes innovative procedures for Colorado River management during times of drought and provides for extensive investment in water conservation and efficiency in Mexico. It also allows the use of a modest amount of water to restore flows and natural habitat in the lower Colorado River and its once-thriving Delta.

The agreement embodies a cooperative and ultimately broadly-supported resolution of long-standing and difficult binational water issues. Minute 319 was negotiated under the auspices of the U.S./Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission, but the negotiations and exchange of ideas for solutions involved other federal agencies in both countries, and state governments, major water suppliers and nongovernmental conservation organizations. That “open door” policy helped produce an agreement that now has strong, broad support. It also helped attract private funding to implement portions of the agreement. Among the agreement's features is the involvement of a nonprofit water trust that will pay farmers for water rights that can be used to restore wetlands and benefit the ecological health of the lower Colorado and its delta.

The 1944 treaty determines how Mexico and the United States will share the waters of the Rio Grande. Much of the water actually moving through the Rio Grande system and into the reservoirs downstream of Big Bend comes out of Mexico, especially the Rio Conchos. It flows into a series of reservoirs that are used to irrigate farms and supply cities. This confluence is just upstream of Big Bend National Park and the Cañon Santa Elena Protected Area in Mexico, an area where the two countries are already engaged in cooperative efforts to promote tourism and sustainable development.

Both the lower Rio Conchos in Mexico and the binational Rio Grande face tough challenges: improving drought management, enhancing productivity of irrigated lands and local agricultural markets, and protecting and restoring the ecological features that draw tourism and recreation spending to a region desperately in need of job creation. Many of the ideas embodied in Minute 319 might work well to address the issues facing the Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande. Strategies such as investments in irrigation efficiency and agricultural productivity, cooperative drought response, use of a water trust to benefit ecological restoration, and binational science and research programs all have a vital place in 21st century management of the Rio Grande.

As Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, enters office and the second-term Obama administration settles in, there is opportunity to extend the new vision of cooperative and binational water management to the Rio Grande basin.

Mary Kelly is a water attorney with Parula, LLC and interim director of the Trans Pecos Water and Land Trust.


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