Since 1960, when the gates were closed on the newly built Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River has only rarely flowed to the sea, and the river’s delta started to fade. Water users in the United States saw Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the dam, as a bounty for booming cities in the desert. Communities in the Colorado’s delta saw a river disappear. In a new chapter of an age-old story, the upstream sovereign controlled the resource while the downstream sovereign bore the costs. “Poor Mexico” people said, “so far from God and so close to the United States.”
This history makes it all the more remarkable that on November 20, 2012, Mexico and the United States turned a new page in their relationship to the Colorado River, joining together to restore flows to the Colorado River Delta. Leaving behind unilateralism, the two countries united to sign the most important bilateral Colorado River agreement since the 1944 Treaty. The term of the agreement is short – five years– but the framework it sets and the tools it provides are exactly the kind of innovations that will be needed for both the river and the communities who use it to weather the impacts of climate change.
Moreover, there is every expectation that if that agreement works as hoped, the commitments will be renewed. The agreement signed today provides water for the delta, as well as a system to share water surpluses in times of plenty and shortages in drought. It allows Mexico to store water in Lake Mead, benefitting Mexico and the U.S. states dependent on this vital reservoir, and it commits the two countries to cooperative investments in water conservation, with benefits accruing both to water users and the environment.
This new agreement, known as Minute 319, is a new way forward, but the journey to this accomplishment started years ago. In the waning days of the Clinton administration, rules allocating Colorado River “surpluses” were adopted to benefit U.S. water users over formal protest from Mexico, whose complaint was all but ignored. In the face of this controversy, the two countries signed Minute 306, acknowledging the importance of the Colorado River Delta to both countries, promising further study of the issue of water supply for the environment.
Events over the last twelve years that led to today’s agreement have been a soap opera – a telenovela if you will – with a storyline influenced by language barriers, cultural differences, and geopolitics much larger than the Colorado River. The twists and turns were many in this arduous and complicated negotiation, and at times it appeared destined to fail. Instead, we have a groundbreaking binational agreement.
There are many heroes in this story, most of them dedicated bureaucrats working for myriad agencies in both countries whose names will never be recorded in the history books, but whose patience, persistence, and belief that there is a better way resulted not only in increased certainty for water users on both sides of the border, but also in the prospect of a Colorado River that runs all the way to the sea. Working together, Mexico, the United States, and the river’s many users can restore the Colorado River Delta.