WESTERN SLOPE – In what has been deemed a major show of cooperation between the United States, Mexico and representatives from the Colorado River Basin States, an agreement has been signed that solidifies the countries’ commitment to the 1944 Water Treaty and recognizes that the management of water use from the Colorado River will require creativity and flexibility.
Under the five-year deal, which was announced on Nov. 20, Mexico will accept voluntary water shortages when the storage reservoir Lake Mead drops to certain levels. The agreement, known as “Minute 319,” also stipulates that Mexico will gain opportunities to receive surplus water under certain conditions.
Ted Kowalski, chief of the interstate and federal section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the agreement is important for a handful of reasons and that it could lead to future water management and conservation programs between the U.S. and Mexico.
“Probably what’s most monumental here is that the U.S. has agreed to store an amount of water that Mexico is entitled to receive on a regular basis,” Kowalski said on Tuesday, in an interview with The Watch. “Mexico is using the U.S.’s infrastructure to store water across multiple years and that is huge in the world of water. This is a really big deal for Mexico in particular.”
Kowalski said Mexico generally doesn’t have a lot of good water storage areas. Under the agreement, the U.S. will deliver Mexico’s allotted amounts of water according to a certain schedule and it will give the country more control over its water destiny.
“In a water shortage year, it will give them a tool to use to meet water demands,” he said.
Kowalski said the agreement is monumental for the U.S. as well. If the agreement had not been met, there could be potential litigation on the interpretation of the 1944 Treaty language, which provides Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River Basin. Under the Treaty, the U.S. has the ability to increase that amount to 1.7 million-acre feet of water during surplus years. In drought years, however, the U.S. is able to reduce the amount it delivers by the same percentage consumptive uses are reduced in the lower Colorado River Basin states.
In short, he said this new agreement could stop far reaching water wars during drought years before they even start.
“For this five-year interim period, it avoids water wars over what the Mexican Treaty obligations are,” Kowalski said. “It gives us time to learn by doing it. We will try this out for five years and see how it works for Mexico, the U.S. and the basin states, and then we can extend it or choose not to extend it.”
Kowalski emphasized that the agreement is good for upper basin states like Colorado as well.
“Without the agreement, it could have potentially created additional water wars between the lower basin states and the upper basin states over what the treaty means,” he said.
The agreement also includes a water conservation demonstration project, salinity management language, potential opportunities for Mexico to release its storage for environmental flows in Mexico, and the opportunity for Mexico to store some of its treaty allocation for delivery in subsequent years.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, elements of the agreement include:
• Implementing efforts to enhance water infrastructure and to promote sharing, storing and conserving water as needed during both shortages and surpluses;
• Establishing proactive basin operations by applying water-delivery reductions when Lake Mead reservoir conditions are low in order to deter more severe reductions in the future;
• Extending humanitarian measures from a 2010 agreement, Minute 318, to allow Mexico to defer delivery of a portion of its Colorado River allotment while it continues to make repairs to earthquake-damaged infrastructure;
• Establishing a program of Intentionally Created Mexican Allocation whereby Mexico could temporarily reduce its order of Colorado River water, allowing that water to be delivered to Mexico in the future; and,
• Promoting the ecological health of the Colorado River Delta.
“For the first time, we are figuring out how to work within the law of the river and the treaty’s obligations to allow Mexico to deliver water to the environment so it reaches the delta,” Kowalski said. “That is a huge issue for environmentalist in particular. They will be able to use some of this water to deliver a false flood to monitor the environment and see if it is helpful.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) welcomed the news that the agreement had been signed and said it will be beneficial for the entire Colorado River Basin.
“I want to congratulate U.S. and Mexican negotiators and the seven states in the Colorado River Basin on reaching this historic agreement,” Udall said in a press release on Nov. 20. “Mexico is one of Colorado’s and our nation’s most important partners in trade in the Western Hemisphere, not to mention an indispensable partner on the Colorado River. This agreement will continue our mutually beneficial relationship and help ensure that the Colorado River remains strong from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to Gulf of California.”