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Water At The Border: What A Decline In Surface Water Means For Border Communities

All is calm at American Dam, where the Rio Grande is divided between the United States and Mexico.

Since 1938, the dam has been operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso, to help equitably distribute water between the two nations.  

But beneath the water’s surface lies a complex set of international policy and scientific analysis. IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner addressed the work being done on both sides of the border during the Two Nations One Water 2021 Conference.   

“Transboundary work is hard,” Giner said. “The science piece and the technical piece seems to always work well and has a nice blueprint as to how you move forward. In the case of actual transboundary work, where I've noticed that there's been challenges is in the legal framework.”  

That work has been made even more challenging by drought conditions that are getting worse due to climate change. While Mexico is required to receive 60,000 acre-feet of surface water each year under the 1906 Convention, IBWC Environmental Management Division Chief Gilbert Anaya told KRWG that number has been reduced due to drought.  

“You have a certain amount of water that belongs to New Mexico and Texas and Mexico, so that’s a fixed amount. What we’ve seen, and the trend has been, is that every year that level is harder to meet,” Anaya said. “There is a clause that specifies if it’s under an extraordinary drought condition everybody will have a reduction.”

The amount of water delivered to Mexico has fluctuated in recent years—in 2019 the country received the full 60,000 acre-feet allocation. In 2021 it was just one-fifth of that, about 12,000 acre-feet. 

And it’s not just surface water that both nations rely on—many communities depend solely on groundwater as Sharon Megdal, the director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, describes.  

“Some of our border communities are 100% dependent on groundwater and pump water,” Megdal said. “Sure, that water may be recharged, and the nature of the recharge will depend upon precipitation and temperatures, and that's all changing pretty much in a negative direction. But groundwater is more than a strategic reserve for many communities, it is the water source.” 

Josiah Heyman, from the University of Texas at El Paso, says that he’s seen fresh groundwater resources decline, pointing to monitoring sites in the Las Cruces area as an example. But he says running out of groundwater isn’t the overarching concern, rather the quality of the groundwater available for use.  

“We are running out of near surface, located in this region, fresh groundwater,” Heyman said. “So, there's other sources at a distance, but those distant sources, that's called water importation, those distant sources are very, very expensive to bring in, even the ones that are closest. There's brackish groundwater, below the fresh groundwater, but that has to be processed.”

IBWC Environmental Management Division Chief Gilbert Anaya near the Rio Grande.

That means greater investment into water infrastructure will be required as the need for desalination grows. 

Infrastructure like the KBH Desalination Plant in El Paso, which opened in 2007. IBWC Environmental Management Division Chief Gilbert Anaya told KRWG that the approximately $91 million plant has helped to drastically improve the area’s water portfolio.  

“The desalination plant in El Paso, that is a project that's a success story of using brackish groundwater, which is not anywhere near seawater levels of salinity, but it's water that was typically unusable for drinking or for agriculture without some level of treatment,” Anaya said. “They’ve actually improved their water portfolio by 25-27 million gallons a day of water that would have come from the river, or from the freshwater portion of the groundwater supply.” 

UTEP’s Josiah Heyman stresses that conservation will play a pivotal role in securing a healthy water future. While he says every household should have access to inexpensive water for basic needs, and that communities need to further commit to subsidizing water, outdoor use can be better conserved.   

“It's not that we're running out of water in this region, but we're going to undergo an abrupt and challenging transition in the next let's say 30 to 50 years,” Heyman said. “I think we need to prepare ourselves for and plan for this transition. And I think within that transition, we all should have a strong commitment to the most vulnerable among us.” 

Madison Staten was a Multimedia Reporter for KRWG Public Media from 2020-2022.