Rio Grande Water-Sharing Convention Signed (1906)

The Rio Grande is one of North America’s great rivers, travelling 1885 miles from headwaters in Colorado, through New Mexico and forming the border between the U.S. and Mexico for more than 1200 miles in Texas.  Yet, because of extensive water withdrawals, in many years, the Rio Grande dries up before it reaches the sea.

To bring order to water withdrawals between Mexico and the U.S., the two countries have entered into water-sharing agreements.  The first was signed on May 21, 1906.  It requires the U.S. to provide Mexico with 60,000 acre-feet of water annually from the upper region of the watershed. That water generally comes from Elephant Butte Reservoir, in central New Mexico, which is a major water-storage impoundment providing water for irrigation and municipal use in New Mexico and the El Paso-Juarez region.  The river often stops flowing south of Elephant Butte because the water is all allocated and withdrawn, leaving none for the channel itself.

1920s postcard showing the site of the Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande (from the University of Houston Digital Library; created by H.S.B.)

The second agreement was signed in 1944.  It allocates water from the lower region of the river, downstream of El Paso.  This treaty requires Mexico to provide 350,000 acre-feet of water to the U.S. from its tributaries annually; the U.S. does not have to provide any water from its tributaries to Mexico.  The river often also dries up in this region because of water withdrawals, and often is empty when it reaches the ocean.  Because of the use of water, the Rio Grande is often considered two rivers, upstream and downstream, rather than one.

The Rio Grande is a good example of a reality that is common around the world.  Rivers often form the borders between nations, and, therefore, their watersheds and water flows are shared among nations.  According to the UN, nearly half of the earth’s surface is in watersheds shared by two or more countries, through a total of 263 rivers and lakes that serve as national borders.  Transboundary waters, as they are called, involved 145 nations.

Often, rivers connect many more than two nations.  Nineteen water basins are shared by more than five countries, including the Congo, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi.  The Danube, which runs through central Europe, flows through 18 countries!

Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, Texas–the border between the U.S. and Mexico (photo by Glysiak)

As Mark Twain famously said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”  To avoid fighting, more than 3600 treaties, conventions and other agreements have been negotiated to allocate the water in shared watersheds.  Today, most countries deal peacefully with their neighbors about water, even when they may engage in violent and long-running contests over other issues, such as religion, immigration or borders.  The UN cites that the last half-century has seen only 37 aggressive disputes over water, while 150 treaties have been signed.  Consequently, an entire discipline has developed in international affairs to address water-sharing concerns—water diplomacy.

Water, as we know, is the most valuable resource.  And nations, even warring nations, understand that their short-term and long-term existence depends on the orderly and rational allocation of the water that nature makes them share.

References:

Carter, Nicole T. et al.  2017.  U.S.-Mexican Water Sharing :  Background and Recent Deveopoments.  Congressional Research Service.  Available at:  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43312.pdf.  Accessed May 21, 2018.

International Boundary & Water Commission.  Treaties Between the U.S. and Mexico, Convention of May 21, 1906.  Available at:  https://www.ibwc.gov/Treaties_Minutes/treaties.html.  Accessed May 21, 2018.

Rister, M. Edward  et al.  2001.  Challenge and Opportunities for Water of the Rio Grande.  Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics 43(3):367-378.  Available at:  https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/113529/2/jaae433ip6.pdf.  Accessed May 21, 2018.

United Nations.  International Decade for Act ‘Water For Life’ 2005-2015.  Available at:  http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/transboundary_waters.shtml.  Accessed May 21, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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