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  The river often stops flowing south of Elephant Butte because the water is all allocated and withdrawn, leaving none for the channel itself.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

May 1
Linnaeus Publishes “Species Plantarum” (1753)
May 2
“Peter and The Wolf” Premieres (1936)
May 3
Vagn Walfrid Ekman, Swedish Oceanographer, Born (1874)
May 4
Eugenie Clark, The Shark Lady, Born (1922)
May 5
Frederick Lincoln, Pioneer of Bird Banding, Born (1892)
May 6
Lassen Volcanic National Park Created (1907)
May 7
Nature’s Best Moms
May 8
David Attenborough Born (1926)
May 9
Thames River Embankments Completed (1874)
May 10
Birute Galdikas, Orangutan Expert, Born (1946)
May 11
“HMS Beagle” Launched (1820)
May 12
Farley Mowat, Author of “Never Cry Wolf,” Born (1921)
May 13
St. Lawrence Seaway Authorized (1954)
May 14
Lewis and Clark Expedition Began (1804)
May 15
Declaration of the Conservation Conference (1908)
May 16
Ramon Margalef, Pioneering Ecologist, Born (1919)
May 17
Australian BioBanking for Biodiversity Implemented (2010)
May 18
Mount St. Helens Erupts (1980)
May 19
Carl Akeley, Father of Modern Taxidermy, Born (1864)
May 20
European Maritime Day
May 21
Rio Grande Water-Sharing Convention Signed (1906)
May 22
International Day for Biological Diversity
May 23
President Carter Delivers Environmental Message to Congress (1977)
May 24
Bison Again Roam Free in Canada’s Grasslands National Park (2006)
May 25
Lacey Act Created (1900)
May 26
Last Model T Rolls Off the Assembly Line (1927)
May 27
A Day for the birds
May 27
Rachel Carson, Author of “Silent Spring,” Born (1907)
May 28
Sierra Club Founded (1892)
May 29
Stephen Forbes, Pioneering Ecologist, Born (1844)
May 30
Everglades National Park Created (1934)
May 31
The Johnstown Flood (1889)
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