Sally Jewell, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, took time today to recognize the heroic efforts of U.S. and Mexican citizens who spent years together negotiating a new Colorado River agreement between the two nations. Jewell noted that “ecosystems know no borders” and acknowledged the importance of cooperation when addressing the challenge of caring for natural resources.
The Colorado River agreement, known as Minute 319, is groundbreaking in its approach, moving away from a focus on “who gets what” to a more modern, flexible framework that allows the U.S. and Mexico to share surplus when water is plentiful and share shortage when water is scarce. The agreement also commits the two nations to work together on water conservation and restoration of the Colorado’s long-desiccated delta by committing water to sustain it.
This cooperative framework to water management creates benefits for water users on both sides of the border, demonstrating that with a broad approach to river and water management, there is room to negotiate a win for multiple stakeholders – a model that water leaders might use to solve problems elsewhere in the Colorado River basin. Moreover, it stands as what is likely the first agreement between nations to jointly commit water to sustain a river’s natural values.
But Minute 319 also stands as a reason to celebrate what people of diverse cultures and interests can accomplish when they come together to focus on a common goal. I salute all of the men and women who toiled for years to make possible a new era of binational cooperation on the Colorado River.
I’m often asked how the Environmental Defense Fund and our conservation partners managed to secure such an historic binational commitment to river restoration. After all, the delta notoriously hasn’t seen regular flows since before 1960, and water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin has become sufficiently dire to attract the attention of The New York Times on several occasions in the past four years. Moreover, success would require buy-in from sovereigns with significant differences in their approach to water management, not to mention language, systems of governance, and culture.
Our instinct was to sit down with water managers from every corner of the basin and to try to understand their needs and concerns. Based on this, we looked for ways to solve the delta’s problems while at the same time attempting to solve the water users’ problems (see National Geographic’s series on the Colorado River Delta). This was particularly important given that the Colorado River delta is a border resource, with no clear government agency with jurisdiction, and no one government or agency with all the tools needed to implement environmental restoration.
So while it has been easy to look at the Colorado’s dry river channel and say there’s a problem, it was much harder to find water managers committed to solving that problem because none of them could do it on their own.
To get to a place where we could meaningfully address the degraded delta’s environment, river restoration advocates had to work on success in every aspect of the U.S.-Mexico agreement, including surplus and shortage sharing, rules that would allow Mexico to store water in U.S. reservoirs, binational financing of a canal lining project, and a venue for discussing future cooperative binational projects like ocean water desalination. Moreover, we had to ensure that myriad stakeholders from both countries remained interested in working on all elements of the agreement, even when the potential for failure loomed on the horizon.
It took early “get-to-know-you” meetings, where border crossings were arranged for officials who had not previously spent much time abroad. It took dinners – complete with wine and tequila – where negotiators from top levels of government broke bread and got better acquainted. It took field trips to the border where these leaders could see firsthand how the Colorado River is managed between nations.
All told, it took close to five years to negotiate a five-year agreement. But Minute 319 truly demonstrates the adage that the process is the product. The U.S. and Mexican negotiators’ investment in getting to know people, water systems, laws, and politics brought the two nations into the Minute 319 framework where their interests on the Colorado River became more aligned than ever before.
Today, each country has a real stake in how the other conducts Colorado River management, and in collaborating to make real improvements including environmental restoration and water conservation. This alignment will serve water users in both countries well for years to come. I am proud and honored to have been able to witness and participate in the process.