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U.S., Mexico reach deal to conserve Colorado River water

SANTA FE, N.M. – The United States and Mexico unveiled an agreement Wednesday to preserve the overtaxed Colorado River, including spending millions of dollars on conservation and environmental projects and drawing up plans to deal with any shortages amid drought and climate change.

The United States pledged to invest $31.5 million in water conservation projects in Mexico, such as lining irrigation ditches with concrete to reduce leaks and upgrading irrigation equipment to use less water.

The water saved would be divided among the two nations and environmental projects.

In addition to the conservation savings, the agreement sets aside another 210,000 acre-feet of water for environmental projects. One acre-foot is enough to supply a typical U.S. family for a year.

The two nations and a coalition of charitable foundations also agreed to contribute a total of $18 million for environmental restoration, research and monitoring.

The nine-year agreement is an amendment to a 1944 treaty that governs how the U.S. and Mexico share and manage the river, which flows through both nations. It expands on a 2012 amendment that expires at the end of this year.

Details of the new amendment were announced at a water conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Colorado is vital to the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. It supplies water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in the U.S. alone. Equivalent figures for Mexico weren’t immediately available.

The river begins in the Colorado mountains and winds 1,400 miles to the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California.

“This agreement provides certainty for water operations in both countries and mainly establishes a planning tool that allows Mexico to define the most suitable actions for managing its Colorado River waters,” said Roberto Salmon, Mexico’s representative on the International Boundary and Water Commission, a U.S.-Mexican organization that oversees the two nations’ boundary and water treaties.

Edward Drusina, the U.S. representative, said the agreement “puts us on a path of cooperation rather than conflict.”

The charitable foundations “are eager to do their share to make sure the agreement is implemented and successful,” said Ted Kowalski, director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative and one of the groups involved.

The others include the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the International Community Foundation and the Water Foundation.

Other provisions of the agreement:

– Both countries will draw up contingency plans to deal with any shortages of water in the river amid drought and climate change.

– Both countries agreed to share the burden of any shortages and the benefits of any surpluses in the Colorado River.

– Mexico is allowed to store some of its share of the river water in Lake Mead in the United States if it cannot use it immediately. Mexico can withdraw it later, subject to some conditions.

– The International Boundary and Water Commission will study ways to reduce salt levels in the Colorado River that reaches Mexico. The water picks up salt from the soil when it is used for irrigation and returned to the river; too much salt makes it unusable for agriculture and drinking.